by Alec Dewar
Is this novel a masterpiece? Plenty of the reviews it has received will try to convince you that it is, and both the book itself and its publication history make bids for high esteem. It is suitably epic in scope, with a narrative sweep that extends from Nazi Germany to present-day Iceland and incorporates elements of Biblical lore as well as Norse mythology. Its drama unfolds simultaneously on a domestic level, focusing on the lived experience of diverse individuals, and a level that can probably only be described as encompassing the whole of the Anthropocene, from humankind’s emergence (which is to say, creation) through to its eventual — and imminent — extinction. And like many a masterpiece before it, it is a work of literature more than twenty years in the making. Its first section, ‘Thine Eyes Did See My Substance’, was published in Iceland as long ago as 1994. Its second section, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Years’, appeared in 2001, and its final section, ‘I’m a Sleeping Door’, brought it to completion in 2016. All three parts remained unavailable to Anglophone readers until this year, and have now taken form all at once, in totality, under the title CoDex 1962 in a beautifully intricate and melodic translation by Victoria Cribb. But is it a masterpiece? Well…
The inescapable fact is that if you’ve ever heard anything about Icelandic literature, you have surely heard about Sjón. He is the goliath of Iceland’s literature culture and his ubiquity is extraordinary to behold. Like Bragi Ólafsson, Sjón made a name for himself through his collaborations with Björk, in his case as a lyricist. From lyrics he moved into poetry, and from poetry he moved into prose; he has published thirteen novels to date (counting the three volumes of CoDex 1962 as a single title) although only his five most recent efforts are available in English.
Readers unfamiliar with Sjón can glean the tone and tenor of his books through the story of his nom de plume. His full name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson; his pen name is an abbreviation of his real first name, minus four letters, but it is also the Icelandic word for “vision”. To my ear, there’s something grating about the man’s embrace of this name, something flippant and befitting only of popular entertainers like Madonna and Cher, something that manages to be pretentious and twee in equal measure, and his books tend to read as outgrowths of the same vibe. His novels often toy with fable, melodrama, and saccharine episodes from Icelandic history, with an approach that invariably crosses over from childlike to childish, from faux innocence to blatant naïveté. Nevertheless, he has been amply rewarded: with the four books preceding CoDex 1962, Sjón has won every major Icelandic and Nordic literary prize, and has been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. On the basis of this success, he has recently taken to editing and prefacing collections of contemporary Icelandic and Nordic short stories, building a global profile as the figurehead-cum-spokesman of his region of the world.
Enough. It’s plain that I value neither Sjón’s work to date nor the way in which his stature allows his work to overshadow too many other, more deserving Icelandic titles. But I’m making these things plain in preparation for a dish of humble pie. CoDex 1962 contains every single thing I find risible about Sjón, and yet I found myself awed by its ambition, its uncommon narrative sophistication, its incredible emotional depth — especially in its concluding chapters — and, finally, most unexpectedly, its profound seriousness of purpose. I don’t know whether or not it deserves a designation as absolute as “masterpiece”, but I do know that it deserves all the attention and esteem it has received.
There’s no way to summarise the novel without making it sound ridiculous or slight. You’ll just have to trust that the narrative lines I’m about to describe are drawn by Sjón with care and precision enough to dispel the sloppiness of this synopsis. CoDex 1962 opens in the German village of Kükenstadt (“chicken-town”) in 1944, when an emaciated Jewish refugee seeks refuge in an establishment that is partly a guesthouse, partly a brothel. His name is Leo Loewe. Get it? That’s “Lion Lion”, to translate from both the Latin and the German, and other characters in the guesthouse have names like Tomas Hasearsch (“hare’s arse”) and Karl Maus (“mouse”). Yes, it’s that kind of novel.
Anyway: in Kükenstadt, Leo falls under the care of a young woman named Marie-Sophie, and over time a sort of romance blossoms between them. Eventually, Leo and Marie-Sophie conceive a child, but not by natural means. Leo fashions the child from clay — creating a being that is half-homunculus, half-golem — and Marie-Sophie finesses its physical details. Life is breathed into the clay when it is stamped with gold, but then, long story short, Leo is forced to flee Germany with the inert clay in his possession and his gold is stolen from him as he makes his escape. He ends up alone in Iceland. He tries to settle in Reykjavík after the end of the war, and he spends the next twenty years keeping the clay child moist while trying to hunt down enough gold to bring it to life again. Only in 1962 does he finally succeed. The child is given the name Jósef, and when he becomes an adult, he begins to narrate CoDex 1962: in the first two parts he tells the story of his father’s life in Germany and Iceland, and in the final part he touches on some aspects of his own existence. Overall, however, his mode of narration rather apes the mode of Tristram Shandy: his birth — his reanimation — doesn’t occur until almost the end of the novel, and the pressures of narration force him to leap from there to the present day.
I’ll come back to those pressures in a moment. They’re important. Their source is the hinge on which CoDex 1962 swings from lively magical realism towards a place of real gravitas. For now, here’s a list of things that appear throughout the novel in a way that embellishes the fantasy of its premise. The angel Gabriel, “bestr[iding] the Continent, his celestial soles planted on the Greenland ice-cap in the north and the Persian plateau in the south”. Stories within stories about characters like dwarves and old women who live in cottages. An omniscient being who records the dreams of the people of Kükenstadt. A “trainee priest and child-killer” nicknamed “Bloodfoot”. Freemasons. Bestiality. A ghost. A werewolf. Multiple werewolves, plus a whole crackpot theory of Icelandic lycanthropy: “Well, let me tell you what werewolves eat: night-darkness and snow. Where in the world is there a land better suited to such creatures than here? … [T]here were still werewolves living here when the Norsemen stepped ashore. And inevitably there was a degree of interbreeding.” Okay, what else? Poetry, folk songs, a section laid out like the script for a play. A chorus of dead babies, joined by a chorus of dead children, joined by a chorus of dead teenagers and then dead adults. A Russian spy named Pushkin who has a vestigial tail. An African-American man with the improbable name of Anthony Theophrastus Athanius Brown. Muhammad Ali. Yes, very literally, Muhammad Ali is a character in CoDex 1962. So too is Sjón himself. He has an encounter with Jósef Loewe and explains the meaning of his nom de plume. And there’s more, much more, fresh novelty on every page. Too much? For some readers, perhaps. But it must be said that every excess in CoDex 1962 is redeemed, accounted for, and justified by the end of the novel, which not only offers important revelations but also reconfigures everything that has preceded it so that the fantasy elements take on radical new meanings.
Now back to the pressures of narration. Despite the sprawl of his narrative, Jósef Loewe does not speak freely or loosely. His tale is constrained, directed, and shaped by an external force. He speaks in the presence of a listener, a young geneticist named Aleta, who both records his story and prompts him to elaborate on certain details. The significance of this character and her enterprise is the element of CoDex 1962 most likely to escape readers outside Iceland; it is also the element that seems most directly addressed to Icelandic readers, as Sjón offers only a light summary of historical events and a few contextual details to avoid total confusion. Here, then, I feel the need to spell out some of what Sjón glances over, as a means of showing how CoDex 1962 crosses the threshold between the fanciful realm of werewolves and a more solemn space.
The first part of the title of CoDex 1962 comes from the name of the company that employs Aleta. The fictional firm, CoDex, is modelled on a real enterprise called deCODE, established in Reykjavík in the 1990s. deCODE is arguably one of the cultural and economic forces responsible for revolutionising Iceland, sweeping away the provincialism of its national identity and offering instead a sheen of cosmopolitanism. Until the financial crisis of 2008, the company was at the cutting edge of the global effort to sequence the human genome. Crucially, the fact that it was established in Iceland was essential to its success. One of its foundational assumptions was that Iceland’s geographical isolation and confinement meant that the people of Iceland possessed a greater degree of genetic purity than any other people in the world. The Icelandic population was theoretically held to be a wellspring of largely “uncontaminated” genetic information, ripe for data-mining by those with the technology and expertise to maximise the gains.
The Icelandic government was onboard with the idea of using the population for purposes of genetic sequencing, and was able to facilitate the operations of deCODE by granting the company access to the records it held on the genetic makeup of the citizenry. It also incentivised private participation in the activities of deCODE with appeals to nativism: Icelanders who offered their genetic information to deCODE would be able to gauge the purity of their national identity, and would even be able to see how closely they were related to the island’s original settlers. As deCODE went about its business, however, what it revealed was that the genetic makeup of native Icelanders was more heterogeneous than initially believed. They are as much a mongrel people as anyone else, anywhere else. There is no such thing as an “uncontaminated” genetic stock. The foundational assumptions of deCODE were shown up as having been mired in myth, and an enterprise that aimed to demonstrate the truth of the myth has in fact discredited it. In the process, it has discredited the supposed cosmopolitanism of Icelandic society — after all, in the 1990s and 2000s, the powers that be gave credence to outdated ideas of genetic exceptionalism that would have made Adolf Hitler and Francis Galton blush — and it is this situation, this wolf in sheep’s clothing, this Trojan Horse, this invocation of a cosmopolitan Iceland in order to undermine its credibility, that makes CoDex 1962 tick.
Alongside a child fashioned from clay and the angel Gabriel, alongside Freemasons and Muhammad Ali, CoDex 1962 also features a cast of proudly Icelandic characters who are former Nazis, Nazi sympathisers, Nazi collaborators, and war profiteers, all of whom whitewash their personal histories and therefore the history of the nation after the war comes to an end. On top of this, through Leo Loewe’s laborious efforts to become an Icelandic citizen, and through his two foreign acquaintances — Pushkin and Anthony Brown — the novel cuts to the quick of Icelandic identity, and of the disjunctures between what Icelandic identity is purported to be, how it has been historically constructed, and its vicissitudes as something to be lived and embodied. With the global reach of its narrative and its easy genre fluidity, and therefore in its outlook and its style, CoDex 1962 is nothing if not a shimmering vision of Icelandic cosmopolitanism. Yet it uses this superficial guise to smuggle a bomb under the skirts of the very idea of Icelandic cosmopolitanism, to demolish the concept and show it to have always been nothing but a sham. The national history and cultural sensibilities of Iceland are no purer, no more noble, no less tainted by the terrors of the twentieth century, than the genetic makeup of the Icelandic people. Iceland, which remained nominally neutral during the Second World War, harboured Nazis and cultivated Nazi sympathies just like every other country. Its citizens profited from Nazi pillaging, just the like the citizens of many other places, and their descendants have reaped rewards, and continue to reap rewards, from a political class that delegitimises and disenfranchises outsiders, just as many people do today in many other supposedly cosmopolitan parts of the world. If Iceland is, too, a nation of mongrel people, then CoDex 1962 is a fittingly mongrel book: the point of all its discordant elements is the way it forces them to cohabit and intermingle, if not quite cohere, in spite of their discordance.
So, then: is this novel a masterpiece? I can’t issue an unequivocal answer. I can only address the question by asking other questions. Is a “masterpiece” an absolute thing, or can we conceive of the possibility of a masterpiece in qualified or relative terms? CoDex 1962 is far and away the best thing Sjón has ever written, and probably the best thing he will ever write. It reads, on every page, like the work of a writer who is stretching his talents as far as they can go. It is one of the best novels of the year in any language — visceral, captivating, intellectually rewarding, and ultimately deeply moving — and its ambition and achievement are unlikely to be equalled by more than a handful of books this decade. That’s enough to make it something special and worthy of high regard. Whether or not it deserves to be called a masterpiece is a question that can only be satisfied by a reading of it, not a review. Pick it up and decide for yourself, and know in advance that even a decision against its stature will still take you to artistic heights all too rarely reached.
Alec Dewar is a researcher in contemporary Nordic literature at St. Andrews University, Scotland. His essays and reviews have appeared in Scandinavian Studies, Scandinavica, and Edda. He will be writing exclusively about contemporary Icelandic literature for Splice throughout 2018. Alec also takes care of social media for Splice, behind the scenes, tweeting @ThisIsSplice.