The mind-bending miniature historical epic is Sjón's specialty, and Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is no exception. But it is also Sjón's most realistic, accessible, and heartfelt work yet. It is the story of a young man on the fringes of a society that is itself at the fringes of the world--at what seems like history's most tumultuous, perhaps ultimate moment.
Máni Steinn is queer in a society in which the idea of homosexuality is beyond the furthest extreme. His city, Reykjavik in 1918, is homogeneous and isolated and seems entirely defenseless against the Spanish flu, which has already torn through Europe, Asia, and North America and is now lapping up on Iceland's shores. And if the flu doesn't do it, there's always the threat that war will spread all the way north. And yet the outside world has also brought Icelanders cinema! And there's nothing like a dark, silent room with a film from Europe flickering on the screen to help you escape from the overwhelming threats--and adventures--of the night, to transport you, to make you feel like everything is going to be all right. For Máni Steinn, the question is whether, at Reykjavik's darkest hour, he should retreat all the way into this imaginary world, or if he should engage with the society that has so soundly rejected him.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and the chairman of the board of Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavik.
Read an Excerpt
The Boy Who Never Was
By Sjón, Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Sjón
All rights reserved.
The October evening is windless and cool. There is a distant throb of a motorcycle. The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound. Holding it still, he tries to work out the distance; to hear if the bike is coming closer or moving away; if it's being ridden over level or marshy ground, or up the stony slope on the town side of the hill.
A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips so his swollen member slides to and fro in the boy's mouth.
The boy expels a breath through his nose. He sucks the penis more firmly between his lips and resumes the rhythmic back-and-forth movements of his head. But he does so more slowly, more quietly, than before, alternately rubbing the dome of the cock against his soft palate and wrapping his tongue around its shaft. That way he can do both at once: fellate the man and listen. He's good at identifying the model by ear. There aren't that many bikes in Iceland, after all, and their owners have taken to tuning them according to their own ideas in the hope of coaxing more power out of them. This could well be an Indian: the stroke of its engine is sharper than a Harley-Davidson's.
He closes his eyes. Yes, not just any Indian but the Indian. It's for this that he has studied the sounds; to distinguish this one from all the rest. He's sure now that the motorcycle is drawing nearer, approaching up the slope. In no time at all it will breast the crown of the hill, from where the ground falls away to the eastern edge, beneath which is the cliff and he himself on his knees, with the "gentleman" in his mouth.
The man pushes against the movements of the boy's head, which tells the boy he's close to finishing. As he sucks, he grips the man's cock in his hand and rubs it fast, in time to the throbbing of the engine, tightening his grip whenever the bike accelerates and the engine sings. It has the desired effect. The man presses himself harder against the cliff. Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches of the lewd scenes he is staging in his mind.
The counterpoint between the ever-louder throbbing of the engine and the movements of head and hand causes the boy's flesh to stiffen as well. And although he had been intending to save himself this evening, he cannot resist slipping his free hand into his trouser pocket and stroking himself in time to his servicing of the man.
From the summit of the hill comes an infernal roar. The man is now groaning frantically, in competition with the engine noise.
Is she going over?
The question flashes through the boy's mind, but he has no time to wait for an answer: the penis swells abruptly in his mouth. He pinches the root with his fingers and evades the man's hand as it fumbles for the back of his neck to press him close. When the boy releases his grip, the semen spurts onto the withered leaves of the small willow that is waiting out the winter there.
The motorcycle skids to a halt on the brink. Dirt and gravel rain down on man and boy. With a stifled cry, the man peels himself and his shadow from the cliff face. He begins buttoning his fly with trembling hands, glancing around for an escape route. The boy rises to his feet and steps into the man's path. He is a head taller than the gentleman. Without a word the man flings a crumpled banknote at him and hastens away in the direction of town. The boy smooths out the note and grins; there are two of them, a whole fifteen krónur.
On top of the cliff the Indian's engine shuts off.
Silence falls.CHAPTER 2
She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla; a girl like no other, dressed in a black leather overall that accentuates every detail it is intended to hide, with black gloves on her hands, a domed helmet on her head, goggles over her eyes, and a black scarf over her nose and mouth.
The girl pulls down the scarf and pushes up the goggles onto her helmet. Her lips are as red as blood, her eyes ringed with kohl that makes her powdered skin appear whiter than white.
Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir, Sóla G —.
The boy whispers:
— I knew it!
His lips form the name of her double:
— Musidora ...
* * *
It's been more than a year since the boy discovered this girl. As if for a split second he had been granted X-ray vision and could see her as she really was.
He had already known her name, where she lived, who her parents were, the company she kept — for they are contemporaries, and in a town of fifteen thousand those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another — but her world was quite out of reach, far above his rung of society, so he had paid no more attention to her than to others of her kind.
He had made his discovery at a Saturday matinee screening of The Vampires at the Old Cinema. He was sitting in his usual spot, feeling irked by the whispers and giggles emanating from a group of kids his own age in the better seats in front. But just as he was about to yell at them to pipe down, people were here to enjoy the film, not the noisy petting of bourgeois brats, he heard one of the girls say she was fed up with ruining the show for the others.
It was when the girl stood up to leave that it happened. The instant her shadow fell on the screen they merged — she and the character in the film. She looked around and the beam of light projected Musidora's features onto her own.
The boy froze in his seat. They were identical.
* * *
The boy hears a call from the top of the cliff:
— Máni Steinn Karlsson, I know you're there!
He retreats farther into the willow scrub.
The girl draws a red scarf from the pocket of her overall, throws it over the cliff, and watches it float down to earth. She lingers. But when it becomes clear that the boy is not going to give in, she bursts out laughing and turns on her heel.
The motorcycle starts up and she rides away.
The boy emerges from his hiding place. He picks up the scarf and raises it to his nose. The silky-soft material is still warm from the girl's body, still redolent of feminine sweetness.
— O Sóla G — ...CHAPTER 3
The boy heads homeward over the marsh. As he nears the first houses, he makes a detour west around Skólavarda Hill and up Njardargata so no one will be able to tell where he's coming from.
At the top of the street he pauses by the northern wall of the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Gallery and peers around the corner. Although it's past midnight, there's still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, laborers, newspaper reporters, university men armed with telescopes, three women, a poet with a hip flask, and waifs and strays like himself.
The gathering is free from the rowdiness that usually attends any congregation of this group after sunset — they emit no shrieks or gusts of singing. When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the east, where the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.
The boy watches the figures. From where he is standing he cannot see what they see. He draws the red scarf from his pocket. The shiny fabric slips through his fingers like quicksilver, red as her lips, red as her motorcycle, red as the ferment in his blood.
The red of the scarf is the only color that matters to him tonight; his whole world is red.
* * *
In a three-story house on Midstræti the boy climbs up to the attic, which is home to himself and his great-grandmother's sister. It is kitchen, parlor, and two bedrooms, all rolled into one. He makes his way to his bed, timing his footsteps to the old lady's regular intakes of breath.
Noiselessly he undresses and lies down under the covers. He puts on the scarf, though the old lady has told him many times that it's certain death to sleep with anything around your neck. She knows countless tales of people who have hanged themselves in their sleep.
But the boy is sixteen now; he does what he likes. If he wants to hang himself with a silk scarf that is fragrant with the scent of the motorcycle girl, Sóla G —, that's just what he'll do.
* * *
Toward morning he dreams about the gentleman of the night before.
It seems to him that he is looking into a bedroom with rose-patterned wallpaper, velvet curtains, and a luxuriously made-up bed with plump pillows and a thick eiderdown. On the wall above the headboard hangs a painting in a gilt frame, depicting a gabled, turf-roofed farmhouse at the foot of a high mountain with four peaks, and a river in the foreground. To the boy it looks like the farm where he used to live with his mother until she died and he was sent away.
The man enters the room. He takes off his dressing gown, hangs it over the back of a chair, and climbs into the bed. Then he turns to the painting and runs his fingers along the gilt frame. At that the painting slides to one side, like a panel from a hatch, to reveal a secret compartment containing a casket the size of a beer crate. The man lifts this out of the cavity, places it on the bedside table, and opens it. Inside is a human head with curly red hair. The boy recognizes his own head.
The man lies down in bed, takes the boy's head out of the casket, and lays it on the pillow beside him, then draws up the quilt to its chin. The head's eyes open.
From the pillow the boy can see his body standing at the foot of the bed, dressed up in his Sunday best but lacking a head.
His head begins to laugh; the body shakes with laughter.CHAPTER 4
Reykjavík has two picture houses, the Old Cinema and the New Cinema. Films are shown daily at both, one or two on working days and three on Sundays. Each screening lasts from one to two and a half hours, though lately films have become so long that they sometimes have to be shown over consecutive evenings.
The boy watches all the movies that are imported to Iceland. As a rule, he goes to both cinemas on the same day and sees most films as often as he can.
* * *
He was eleven years old when he saw his first motion picture, in the autumn of 1913. On the first day of summer that year, Pastor Fridrik, public benefactor to the boys of the town, had founded within the YMCA movement a brigade modeled on foreign scout troops, called the Varangians after the Norse warriors who had once fought for the emperors of Byzantium. The old lady had got wind of this and, on the strength of her connection with the man of God — she'd shared a bed with Pastor Fridrik's maternal aunt for a whole winter when they were both young hired hands — pleaded with him to accept into the Varangian troop an unfortunate orphan whose upbringing had been dumped on her five years before.
She had, she said, no more idea than anyone else from the countryside how to bring up a child in town; the boy was an outsider and at the age when, if nothing were done, he would join the rabble of little savages who roamed Reykjavík's main street, squealing like pigs, chucking horse manure at passersby, and tipping over cyclists. Either that or — which she found more likely — he would end his days in the attic, since he was already such a loner that rather than go out and play with his classmates he preferred to hang around at home, smoking cigarettes with her.
The boy had overheard her saying something of the sort to Pastor Fridrik, since he had been ordered to wait outside in the passage, munching hard candies, while they had their talk.
Once the old lady had finished her piece, the boy was summoned into the office. Imposing youth leader and puny youngster looked one another in the eye. After they had studied each other for a while, Pastor Fridrik announced:
— He's a promising lad. I'll take him.
Then, stroking his distinguished beard, he added:
— But he'll have to stop smoking.
The business of being a Varangian turned out to be insufferably dull. The other youths knew the boy from school and shunned him just as they did there. It all boiled down to being a strapping young man and currying favor with the patrol leaders who led the brigade in the scout training that was intended to enhance their virility and mental powers. Most bearable for the boy were the occasions when they were permitted to dress up in the costume of the Varangian Guard, after the fashion of the men of old, in blue-and-white tunic, red cloak, and blue-and-red cap, both because he enjoyed making his cloak swirl around his thighs and because it allowed him to become somebody else.
Then, on the first day of winter, the proprietor of the Old Cinema invited the Varangians to attend the premiere of The White Glove Band, on condition that they turn up in their full regalia.
That night, for the first time that he could remember, the boy dreamed.
The Varangians made no further trips to the cinema, so he stopped attending. Instead, he made a pact with the old lady that providing he didn't take up smoking again, he would be allowed to go to the pictures.
* * *
And now the boy lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind.
Sleeping, he dreams variations on the films, in which the web of incident is interwoven with strands from his own life.
But he has yet to dream of Sóla G —.CHAPTER 5
The boy is loafing idly on the pavement outside Hotel Iceland. He has just emerged from the Chaplin film at the New Cinema and is waiting to go to the latest Fatty caper at nine o'clock on the other side of the square. Both the town's screens are showing nothing but riotous comedies, presumably because today a referendum is being held on the country's independence, and life is supposed to be fun. Not that the boy is affected by the fuss, as he has no more right to vote than anyone else under forty. Still, the clowning and slapstick of Fatty and Chaplin can be enjoyed at any age and can just as easily raise a laugh for the twenty-third time.
There's a convivial atmosphere around the hotel, as there always is when a passenger ship is in port. The steamer Botnia docked at coffee time, having voyaged from Copenhagen with a cargo of people and freight. Men and women of the better sort wander in and out of the lobby; strange languages hover in the air, mingling with the fragrant blue tobacco smoke from cigarettes and cigars; the town's followers of fashion are out in force to cast an eye over the foreign visitors' tailoring, and in the hotel dining room a brand-new gramophone record is playing. Interspersed with this modern feast for the senses is a cacophony of barking and neighing, creaking of harnesses, and shouts of "ho, ho, ho," while piles of dung, deposited by the horses of recent arrivals from over the mountains, steam gently in the cool evening air.
It would be incorrect to say that the boy is wholly idle as he loiters there on the hotel sidewalk. He is, in fact, amusing himself by analyzing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some five hundred films in which every glance, every movement, every expression, and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject's inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or for evil. Indeed, all mankind's behavior is an open book to him — how people conduct themselves in groups, large or small; their relationship to every conceivable thing; their movements in all kinds of interior, in the streets, in the town and country — since the simplified and exaggerated miming of the actors has made it easier for the boy to fix it all in his mind.
Excerpted from Moonstone by Sjón, Victoria Cribb. Copyright © 2013 Sjón. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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