Conversation / 26 May 2016

Ziggy Stardust in Iceland

An Interview with the Icelandic Poet and Novelist Sjón

In 1978, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson falls in love with Ziggy Stardust. He is 15 years old. If there is such thing as fatal love, we witness it here. Bowie has no knowledge of this, his life revolves around his role in the film Just a Gigolo and touring with Isolar II. Sigurjón meanwhile shortens his name to artsy Sjón, starts a garage band and (self-)publishes his first book of poetry Sýnir (Visions) with the money he makes at his summer job. At nineteen, he reads the novel, The Master and Margarita. The fatal love strikes again. Sjon overcomes Breton’s thought on prose as secondary form, feeling tired “of the poetic eye of the first person.” He would now prefer writing novels - like Bulgakov.

This teenager becomes a bestselling novelist, a poet, an air guitarist, a lyricist and an Oscar nominee (for the song I’ve Seen It All, that he co-wrote with his friend Björk; they met in the neo-surrealist group Medúsa which he co-founded). He is interested in Icelandic folklore and its folk tales without author, signature, ownership. In her essay, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf ventures that “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Sjón, on the other hand, thinks that unsigned folk tales and folk beliefs are an unofficial version of history, kept alive through storytelling by all those who have no power in society. If we would be asking Sjón as a prosecutor asks a criminal: “What were your motives?” he would reply: “To give them voice.” I got to ask him about his stance on all the themes of the realms mentioned above, when he was visiting Ljubljana as a guest of the literary festival, Fabula.

How did you feel on the 10th of January, when Bowie died?

He was both a mentor and an idol. It was a sad day, but I was actually happy for him to have just delivered this very, very fine album, Blackstar. I thought “he's in good shape” when I was listening to it. I would have been sad if it wasn’t that good, so I was happy for him that he went out with a beautiful, powerful project.

I felt like this winter every week came with an obituary. Umberto Eco, Harper Lee…

I know Harper Lee just as a phenomenon, but Umberto Eco I especially enjoyed as an essayist. He was a great educator. What happens when someone like Eco or Bowie dies, a whole universe is extinguished. It’s so obvious that a whole universe goes with a person. And that is a moment for contemplation.

In the 70s, you were trying to change the world with your surrealistic group, Medusa. Today, reality seems more surreal than surrealism. Is surrealism still capable of changing the world?

Well, surrealism is just about living in the surrealist state of mind, which has been possible whenever and will keep being possible. Surrealism is about working with opposites, finding a place where opposites cease to exist. Absolute love is a big part of it. And the rebelliousness that comes with this absolute love. That is one thing the world needs today.

Surrealism is chiefly about the bravery to rebel?

Yes, and going against authority. We are seeing a comeback of authority in politics. What is ISIS but a perversion of authority? Violence in the name of religion, that has become a perversion. We would all be better off if they were writing surrealist poetry.

Surrealist poetry was revived in the work of William S. Burroughs. Did you read him a lot?

For me as a teenager, his were the first very graphic texts about sexual relations between men. In my novel Moonstone, when the protagonist Mani is giving a blowjob to a guy, he says he has the eyes of a sheep killing dog. This was said about Burroughs when he was a teenager.

In your novel, Blue Fox, the protagonist is a girl with Down syndrome (DS). Today, there are many discussions on prenatal screenings that show fetuses have DS and the abortions that follow. How are we treating people with DS?

This discussion goes on without any recognition that they might be listening. The people discussing this are acting as if they shouldn’t be a part of the discussion - that implies a huge prejudice, which is that they are not able to understand, that they are too stupid. The same arguments that are used to abort the fetuses are used to keep them out of this discussion. A young woman with DS said in an interview a few years ago in an Icelandic newspaper: “This discussion is hurting me, that people like me shouldn’t exist. I have a job, friends, I listen to music.” She wanted to put forward a case that her life was worth living. Of course nobody took notice of it.

Also the institutionalization is making them disappear from society…

Yes, they are fewer and fewer, and nobody knows them anymore. I met a group of them because they are doing a play in Prague, based on the Blue Fox. One of them spoke fine English. So where do you draw a line to say: “This person is unfit for taking part in our society.” We are saving them from future suffering, so we abort them. So if you see in a fetus this person will get an eye disease at 16, you should also say: “Let's abort it. This will be a hard experience for this person?”

So it is prejudice masked as empathy?

Masked with empathy and science. This idea of a perfect human being is something we should have said goodbye to after the Second World War. Somebody deciding on someone else's behalf.

In your novels, science is never to be trusted completely, but you leave a lot of place for magic. You say you believe when people tell you they saw an elf…

People are having experiences different from mine all the time, and I respect that. I show the person respect in believing what he is telling me. I try to look at scientists as just another group who is trying to make sense of this world. I have an inherent intolerance for authority: I cannot accept everything they say about their discoveries and the results of their experiments.

They have been proven wrong many times.

That’s a part of science, and they should acknowledge that. That is, in a way, a beautiful part of science. The best science knows that this is a flexible dynamics. When science decides on an absolute truth, then they are no better than religious people or another group of dogma.

Science is as uncertain as Reykjavik in the beginning of 20th century in your book Moonstone. Mani, a homosexual gigolo, accepts his uncertainties – and that’s when he starts getting involved in society.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri

The little match seller

Every match a dream

Every dream a flight!

One flight after another

On the filthy and shear snow

That scratches the child with asphalt

Death makes its way

And turns her body to marble.

Swallow her silent and alert mouth

Grab her round bare little hands

Snatch her lifetime interrupted

By a macramè frill

Grab her knees dirtied on all fours

Grasp her fury without aims

Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies

Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time

Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet

Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body

Seize! Her implacable disposition to die

Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart

Seize! Her frozen match on the ground

Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!

Light the burn out match

Brighten the enchantment of her dream

Clean the filthy snow

Melt that marble body

Soothe the asphalt scratches

Release her breath

Raise her body from the floor

Allow her the last flight.

Absolutely, yes. In the beginning, he is an unstable element in a city, who thinks he has it all. When the Spanish flu comes, the society crumbles. His strengths come to the forefront, only because he's forced to break his habits.

He is pushed out of his comfort zone.

Out of his unstable safe zone into society, where he can actually join society. But only while it lasts. When the epidemic is over, he goes back to his old self. That was important to me. That he would not become in any way a better person in the eyes of society.

Because society was not learning anything from him at that point?

It took 98 more years, when both the public and the legislators in Iceland started realizing we shouldn’t have a group of people that do not have equal human rights. If we deny them human rights, we can have politicians deciding to limit other human rights. People who are against gay marriage don’t realize that what is really at stake are their own human rights. What if they decide that people from this region are not allowed to marry people from another region?

When you started writing novels, you moved away from the first person narrative. In Moonstone you went from third person narrator to first person in the end.

Yes, I'm not completely with him, I am standing behind him, shadowing him, there's always a little distance. He’s always a kid, a boy. On the last page, I bring the story to myself. I have a cameo in all my books.

Like Tarantino.

Since my very first novel, yes. I didn't make this absolute break with the poetry. It was a way of being present. Fridrik Fridrikson, for example, has a little bit of me in him.

Fridrik Fridrikson, protagonist of your novel The Blue Fox, is also in a poetry group and likes French poetry. His universe is made out of poems, he says. Which poems is his universe made from?

A poet reaches out and takes a word from here and from there, makes a poem, a fragment of the great universe. Fridrik is occupied with Mallarme. He, of course, is a precursor of surrealism. And Mani is obsessed with vampires, admired by the surrealists, who idolized Musidora. There is a link between me and the characters.

What about the character of Johnny Triumph (Sjon's stage name when performing with Sugarcubes). He shows up when change is needed?

Yes, yes. He is in my first novel. He is the power. Demonic rock manifestation. I'm always playing with the ideas of high culture and low culture and finding the crossing points. For example, Metamorphosis by Kafka begins as a folk tale. Once there was a young man who wakes up in a shape of bug. His family is just like stupid families in all those stories. We see it as literature, because it’s set in Prague, not on a farm, and because Kafka became Kafka.

What interests you are anonymous tales. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf ventures to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

It's possible. I'm a very fine with ascribing all anonymous literature throughout human history to women. I really like the idea that the creator of the story of creation in the Bible was a woman. There is a theory that she was a very well-known poet and storyteller, and that it was written originally as a comedy about a stupid arrogant man.

You left Iceland for a few years and moved to London. Did it get claustrophobic living in a small city, where you know everyone?

In the 70s, we made the city exciting with concerts, poetry readings, doing all sorts of action. In many ways, a small place can be perfect, when a movement like this happens. There is such a spirit of comradeship, it is a great place to start a cultural movement, also because you see the impact very quickly. Someone said that when we are young, our strength is in the group, when we grow older, we discover the strength in being alone and producing our art works alone. When you grow up and you lived in a place like that, there comes a point, when you more or less worked with everybody around. That’s when things start getting claustrophobic. So then you leave, meet a lot of different people, go into lots projects, see things, do nothing for a while, nobody recognizes you on the street, you don’t have conversation on every corner.

The surrealist state of mind helps with changes?

I'm very happy when there are changes. The world needs to be moving. There is nothing as dangerous as stability. People should have place to stay, food, something to do and people they care for, but apart from that, the world should be moving.

Your co-surrealist, Luis Buñuel, has said: “Nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar.” Was the nomination morally acceptable?

There is a difference between being brought to a point of something and doing it. You’re put in a possibly perverse situation. I experience myself as first a writer, not a film professional, so I saw myself as a guest in that world. Of course it was amazing, walking the red carpet, hearing the helicopters, seeing the flashing cameras, sitting in the auditorium, getting the feeling you are on the wrong side of the TV screen. In the foyer, people from movies were walking around and there was a spirit of friendship. I realized then it was almost like being at the annual ball of the plumbers’ union, this is just where they meet and have their party. Everybody was very nice.

Did you get the good seats?

Nominees get good seats, yes. It was strange and dreamlike. I must admit I was fine with not winning, because Bob Dylan was nominated and I thought: “Well you have to give it to him, we can’t do this to an old man, take away his Oscar.” So I was very fine with it. Just a wonderful experience. I would be ready to repeat it and see if I’m a pervert.