Iceland's untold queer history
Icelandic writer Sjón’s newest novel Moonstone: the boy who never was details the life of a sixteen-year-old queer boy, living in Reykjavík in late 1918. As in much of the rest of the world at this moment in history, Iceland is quickly approaching a socio-political turning point and experiencing significant political unrest.
Despite its neutrality in the war, Iceland is riddled with the social angst and fear that accompany wartime. And to make matters worse, the country has no shortage of domestic problems, chief among them being the “Spanish flu,” which ravages a significant portion of the population. Yet, as the world crumbles around him, Máni Steinn is too consumed with the sound of passing motorcycles to notice anything beyond his own world of sex, silent films, and Sóla G, the girl he idolizes as much as his beloved film stars.
Máni, an orphan living with his “great-grandmother’s sister” in the capital, is a loner and sexual adventurer, who realizes early on his preference for living outside of the normal social sphere. Instead, he spends his time at the cinemas and with Reykjavík’s “evening walkers,” or homosexuals, repeatedly seeking out the emotional and physical company of men, and frequently demanding payment from them in exchange for sex. Yet, while he uses prostitution with certain “gentlemen” as a means of supporting himself and his movie obsession, his most meaningful encounters are duty-free, and it is obvious that he yearns for more.
As one lover, a poet, says to him, “Had we but another world and time / Our passionate embraces were no crime.” It is clear throughout the book that the characters wish for such a world. But eventually the harsh reality of Máni’s present circumstances and time eventually comes to reckon with him, and he is forced from his dream-like, cinematic state to face the real evils of illness and death. Even as he almost escapes their grip, he must come face to face with the greatest ill of his society, the hatred and fear of the outsider, which afflicts even the healthiest among his fellow citizens.
Sjón’s novel rightfully takes a spot beside other historical queer narratives, which take place in societies where the chaos, violence and struggle to find political identity mirror the internal sexual conflicts felt by the protagonist. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps and Jamie O’Neill’s formidable At Swim, Two Boys all come to mind.
Yet, Sjón’s book reads so much differently than any of these others that it’s hard to even imagine them in the same category. For one thing, it feels ahistorical, fantastical and playfully imaginative, in spite of its firm historical setting. (Sjón writes exact dates for each section of the book, which coincide with historically documented events.) The label “magical realism” almost feels appropriate in certain passages. Likewise, the third-person narration, which changes from coolly disinterested to sensuous at the turn of a page, can be somewhat disorienting, though often awkwardly or uncomfortably so.
At the end, however, it is the ethereal feeling of the narrative that sticks out the most in the novel, and it ultimately makes the characters in the story disappear from our view, to be lost in the muddle of history. As Máni discovers, “ [the] silver screen has torn and a draft is blowing between the worlds.” And this is precisely what I believe Sjón is trying to show us.
History, painted in thick strokes, can obscure the beauty and complexity of individual stories, so much that they vanish into thin air. And if it weren’t for our imaginations, we might surely lose the stories forever.
Moonstone: the boy who never was
by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux