Tr. by Victoria Cribb
The Icelandic writer Sjón is known in English for his four slim, ethereal novels (as well as his collaborations with Bjork and The Sugarcubes). Yet his self-described “long book,” CoDex 1962 has been available to read in part since 1994, when the first book of the “trilogy” was published in Iceland as a standalone novel. Twenty years later, the novel is complete and available in an English translation by Victoria Cribb, and it is undoubtedly Sjón’s masterpiece.
In the first part of the epic, “Thine Eyes Did See My Substance — A Love Story”, Jósef Loewe begins to tell the story of his life, starting with his father, Leo, a Jewish refugee hiding in the guesthouse of a small German town in 1941. Leo and the maid tasked with nursing him back to health take a piece of clay and form it into the shape of a child: our narrator, Jósef. By the second book, Leo has fled to Iceland where the gold ring that will kindle life in his clay son is stolen and melted, and he is led deep into the heart of a mystery that touches on murder, nationalism, and priceless stamp collections. But at last, in 1962, our narrator enters the world, capable of remembering every moment of his life perfectly. Yet instead of relaying his own story, the final part of the novel takes us outside of Jósef’s narrative for the first time and to the fate of his other brothers and sisters: the children of 1962.
Yet, Sjón’s epic is more than a trilogy of novels, or as its titled respectively: “A Love Story,” “A Crime Story,” and “A Science-Fiction Story”. These gestures toward genre are merely that. The crime story of part two is as much a surreal farce — where werewolves and ghosts, American theologians and Russian spies, become part of a mystery that falls over itself, runs in circles and which is, for that matter, all “based on conjecture and guesswork” anyway.
This playfulness is something Sjón is known for, his work often flitting between realism, fairytale, and the surreal. But here, genre is explicitly invoked, leading us to wonder how the titles come into play within the greater structure of the story. Part two is not a typical crime story. While a murder mystery generally involves the solving of a crime and the re-establishment of law and order, in Sjon’s “crime story” the protagonist seeks the truth only to break the law further. The true crimes, here, are instead how the outsiders of the story are treated by Icelandic society. Jósef, a Jewish refugee, is robbed upon rescue and demeaned in his attempts to gain citizenship, and the ghosts that haunt the graveyards of Reykjavik’s are too often the victims of violence. One, a child born of an affair between an American and an Icelander, dies brutally murdered by his peers and stereotyped and misunderstood even in his death. Instead of playing with the conventions of a particular genre in order to dismiss them, Sjón draws the reader’s attention towards what those genres might overlook — often too focused on the acts of individuals rather than on those contexts that encourage them.
In fact, CoDex is more an anthology of stories than it is a straightforward sequence. Our narrator, Jósef relentlessly diverges from his tale into exposition, folklore, dreams and literary allusion. Threads of the tale split off and refuse to resolve, or even resolve to seemingly little consequence. Jósef takes it upon himself to look at the origins of things before getting to the matter of plot, if he ever does. We learn how the town of Kükenstadt was formed around a chick that saved Europe from a raging berserker; how this troll formed part of the coast of Iceland; how Reykjavik was formed out of the fingerprint of “the universal boy” as he travelled through the cosmos. And we learn how the archangel Gabriel changed her sex, how she refused the call to bring Doomsday upon Europe, closed the gates of heaven and hell, and we learn how humanity is destined to meet its end.
But by shunning traditional narrative structures, Sjón instead alludes to the greater patchwork of stories that make up world literature. Jósef’s story, like Sjón’s novels, enjoy borrowing from what literature has to offer. For Sjón, one man’s story is more than the story of his own life. It is the story of Iceland, heaven and hell, or even the entire world. And in creating such a convoluted narrative, he weaves more subtle threads throughout the work that tie the novels together, around more elusive ideas than plot and genre: the nature of the soul, the purpose of storytelling, and the place of the generation born in 1962, the year that Sjón and Jósef were born.
It’s always tempting to see length as a measure of a novel’s seriousness and importance. Sjón’s previous novels, such as the slight, 160-page Moonstone — a queer coming-of-age story set amidst the Spanish Flu and Icelandic independence — is as serious and important as anything in modern literature. But in CoDex, we really see Sjón’s storytelling style in epic scale — and it’s anything but serious. Important, yes. But as playful, and funny, and experimental as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And like The Master and Margarita, CoDex is concerned less with the subjects of the story, than it is in storytelling itself.
In the second part of the novel, Jósef notes:
That’s how Icelanders generally evaded all topics of conversation, using instead a philosophical mode of discourse. They were incapable of discussing things directly.
And in part, this is what makes the novel the epic that it is. As storytellers, both Jósef and Sjón can’t address how their generation of Icelanders fit into the wider world directly, without first addressing all that came before 1962, and what will come after the children of 1962 are long dead. But they do so knowingly. Jósef’s long, Dickensian passages are interrupted by a woman’s voice — constantly poking the narrator along, questioning elements of the plot, and the purpose of his endless digressions. She’s a refrain in the novel that draws attention to Jósef’s constructions as well as what he’s trying to avoid. Instead of being left with an unreliable narrator as a given, we are presented with the text as a constructed thing, and as fundamentally incomplete. Late in the novel, Jósef says:
To be something, to have a status in society, to be born at the centre of things, to live through momentous times, to be part of the world’s anthology of stories — if only in the gap between the lines, between the words, between the letters, or even in the minute blank space inside the lower-case ‘e’, just once in that dauntingly long book; could there be any more human desire than that?
Sjon’s self-conscious exploration of the act of storytelling is central to the final book of the trilogy. After Jósef recounts his coming into being as a creature made from clay at the end of the second book, we leave his narrative for the first time. When we come back to Jósef he’s still spinning his tale as recorded by Aleta, the woman patiently listening to him. Instead of completing the three act trilogy of his life, part three of Sjón’s novel takes leave to go elsewhere: reminding us that Jósef is not the author, but the narrator. We follow a geneticist, and failed poet, intent on using the genetic data of Icelanders as his materials in writing the future of all mankind. To him, Jósef’s story is but a collection of tapes kept by his company, CoDex. To Sjón himself, who turns up late in the book, Jósef is a disabled man he meets in passing, and from whom he plagiarises the line “I’m a sleeping door” — the title of the third act. The final act, “A Science-fiction Story, speculates as to Iceland’s future, where perhaps the stories of all Icelanders are destined to become data points manipulated by companies that have no use for the concept of the individual. The trilogy of Jósef’s life is left unfinished, a story that’ll never reach the ears of anyone except Aleta, like all the great stories of the world that will never be recorded, written down or translated.
As the novel closes, the genetics company CoDex is on its way to being the author of humanity’s end. A novel which started in the hands of a romantic and elaborate narrator, could be seen to speculate pessimistically about the end of all storytelling, and perhaps touches a little too close to home. While the possible death of the novel is in constant speculation, multinational corporations only continue to hold greater sway in our day-to-day lives, and in our politics. Instead of the stuff of great literature, Jósef’s life is reduced to a handful of megabytes which while preserved, is almost certainly forgotten in the future of the novel’s world.
However, I don’t think this is how Sjón sees things, at least not entirely. When I think about the wealth and beauty of translated fiction I always think about how, for English speakers, the idea of world literature is so inevitably skewed. Some of the absolute giants of fiction, some of the greatest stories in the world, will never be translated. When we read books from any country we’re only looking at a tiny sample of a culture’s worth of stories — and even then, we’re reading them as mediated through the words of a translator, and with all of our biases in tow.
But Sjón, a writer in a little-spoken language, isn’t so concerned with literature as a method of record or communication. Literature has a place in the world as long as there’s a humanity to nurture it. The novel ends on an agnostic note as to the future of our modern ideas of storytelling, based more on the primacy of the written word than in the most ancient forms of literature, which were always passed down orally. It’s easy to forget that stories are rarely the work of any individual, but part of a collective process of telling and retelling — borrowing, alluding or stealing. There’s reason to be hopeful. In the epilogue, Sjón notes that unlike energy or matter, which stay the same, “The biomass of fiction is growing.”
All stories have their origins long before humans discovered a means of storing them somewhere other than in their memories, and so it doesn’t matter if books are worn out by reading, if the print-run is lost at sea, if they’re pulped so other books can be printed, or burned down to the last copy.
This is not the first time Sjón has appeared in his work in such a direct manner. In Moonstone he appears as the author of the novel, explaining why he came to write it. But in CoDex, he doesn’t mean to treat himself as an authority, but more to remind us that it is readers, not authors, who are in control — which gives us reason for hope, if we choose it. In this final section, Sjón speaks to the reader and acknowledges his work as a constructed and arbitrary thing. If the story speculates toward a nihilistic vision of the future, it’s as much a reflection of the narratives we spin about ourselves as it is a prediction of our own destiny. Throughout the novel, Jósef’s story is constantly interrupted and challenged by Aleta, who answers back and criticises, asking why it is he chooses to tell it as he does. In this way Sjón reminds us of our agency as readers. It’s not only in the hands of the author where they choose to bring it to an end, but where the reader chooses to take it after the book is over.