MICHEL DETAY
Show Hide image

Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
Show Hide image

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist