Sjón: ‘Behind my book lies another I will never write’
Behind the text of my book Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was hides another one I will never write. It was in 2001 or thereabouts that I heard a story I thought I’d try to develop into a novel. It was about a medium who had become something of a celebrity by conversing with the dead. People would contact him and he would put them in touch with their lost ones.
Most of his clients seemed to be satisfied with the results, even though to a sceptic’s ear the whole thing sounded like bad improvisation. It didn’t help that the medium’s connection to the afterlife jammed whenever the questions to the deceased became too specific. So, the man was obviously a fake (should you believe there are real ones), and he knew it, but there was no denying he was doing his best.
He had worked his way up in the medium world, moving on to give private sessions in the back rooms of hair salons or private homes in villages, slowly proving his worth to like-minded souls. He fast became a star, touring theatres and community halls around the country, a living proof that the dead were alive and craved contact with those of us who had yet to cross over.
Then, one day, the he disappeared from view. The gossip said – yes, the story reached me in that most ancient mode of storytelling – that it had happened right after he’d finally and indisputably made contact with the dead.
At the end of an otherwise uneventful small-town seance, the medium had fallen into deep trance and connected with a local teenager, who just three months ago had been buried after killing himself. In a weak, stuttering voice instantly recognised by his sister, he told the audience the reason why he had chosen take his own life. It was because of the shame he felt after being sexually abused by a man who had come to their town a few years earlier. The sister asked him if he knew the man’s name. The boy did. And that was that for the medium.
As I felt there was a novel in it, I opened a research file on the story and started collecting everything that had anything do with it: borrowing books from the library, photocopying from old magazines and newspapers, burrowing into the archives at Iceland’s national library, bookmarking web pages, sipping coffee and taking snuff with antiquarian booksellers – and going to a couple of seances.
Alongside the story of the main character, I planned to tell the history of mediums and the spiritualist movement in Iceland. One of the first things I learned was that, after a fitful start, the Icelandic Society for Psychical Research had found its grounding in the aftermath of the Spanish influenza pandemic that hit Reykjavik in 1918. The society’s board decided to take advantage of the sudden upsurge in demand for conversations with the dead and it proved a great success. The only thing that could compete with the seances were the northern capital’s two picture houses, which also opened a view into worlds otherwise unreachable by its inhabitants. This made me open two new files: one on the early days of silent cinema in my country, the other on the Spanish flu and its origin in the battlefields of the first world war.
Twelve years later, I still hadn’t written the novel about the doomed medium but some of the research material had grown on me over time – especially the events of 1918. I kept returning to my files, until one day I realised that the key dates of of the epidemic’s progress were also marked by the closure, fumigation and re-opening of the cinemas. That these intertwined events were bookended by the volcano Katla erupting in mid-October and Iceland becoming a sovereign country on 1 December made it into a world asking to be used as the setting of a novel.
Among my papers was an early 1920s newspaper clipping showing a young woman sitting at the wheel of her Overland convertible, by the end of the lake in Reykjavík. It said that at the age of 18 she had served as a doctor’s driver and orderly during the time of the influenza. She became the first character to step on to the ash-laden scene. I gave her the name Sóla G – and hot on her heels came Máni Steinn, the 16-year-old, gay cinephile who offered to carry the whole story on his young shoulders. After that, Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was more or less wrote itself in three months.
As I said at the beginning, the medium’s story will remain unwritten. But there are still exciting things to be found in the information I gathered about it. From a rare document concealed deep within my files, I can still hear the voices of the dead, channelled as if at a seancé, one dark night in the past…
In the five days that have passed since the first influenza fatality, the cinemas have become ever quieter, yet the townspeople have stubbornly continued to attend. Especially the young, whose response to the fear of contagion is to cluster together while the adults stay at home. Besides, it is warmer in the cinemas than in most of their homes, now that the coal shortages and the high price of paraffin have begun to bite, and cosiest of all packed into the seats furthest from the auditorium doors.
But as the flu takes its toll on the musicians – not only those whose livelihood it is to accompany the films but also the ones immediately recruited to fill their places on an assortment of the unlikeliest instruments – the silence grows.
By the time Miss Inga María Waagfjörd, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of The Golden Reel at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune.
More about the book
“Though it is a deeply felt novel, Sjón’s prose is never histrionic or overwrought, balancing rage and hallucination (there are echoes of Artaud and Ballard ) with a gentleness of spirit, an affection for precision and the small scale. The result is sure to delight his fans and convert many new ones.” – Hari Kunzru
Read the full review.
Buy the book
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was is published by Sceptre at £8.99. Buy it from the Guardian Bookshop for £7.64.