When contemplating our ancestral and national history we naturally look for people we can personally connect to. It can be difficult to divine the inner lives and feelings of people from a hundred years ago before social media, blogs and selfies made all that was personal very public. Of course, there are other kinds of records in the forms of letters, news articles, a scattering of photos, early films and artwork. However, it’s more likely that century old documents only offer a glimpse into the complex personalities of people from long ago or that certain outsiders left no record at all. Some special entry point of feeling is needed to connect to history so that you may fully understand and inhabit it. You want a body that you could have been born into. In fiction you can either assume the personality of a historical figure by clinging onto a glimmer of their state of mind or wholly create someone you could imagine being.
Author Sjón has found an extraordinarily creative way of entering into a crucial period of Iceland’s history in his novel “Moonstone” by inventing a boy. The majority of the novel takes place in the later part of 1918. At this time the country gained its independence as a sovereign state while also experiencing devastating losses in its population because of the spread of the Spanish flu. The boy Máni Steinn sells his body to older men and lives with an old lady. He goes to the cinema as much as possible. Here he becomes entranced by a French silent serial film Les Vampires. An outsider's perspective and the surreal crimes of this thriller combine in the boy’s imagination. A woman he idolizes merges with the French actress Musidora. The fluttering of a red scarf mirrors the image of the volcano Katla’s eruption. Through this point of view we feel a fresh version of the country’s transformation. We see it through queer eyes. Within the historic changes of a nation are inserted the creative possibilities of lives and ideas which surviving documents haven’t recorded.
There are haunting scenes where Máni walks through Reykjavik while the influenza is spreading sickness and panic. He remarks how this has caused personal stories of tragedy to turn inward and become hidden: “these days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors.” This is in sharp contrast to the very public celebrations and ceremonies of Iceland gaining independence from Denmark. Amidst the pomp of a nation being born a welcome level of perversity is introduced where Máni makes eyes with a sexy Danish soldier and the pair slip away to a secluded spot to get off with each other. When they are discovered it’s a scandal the nation wants to suppress. This isn’t the image they want to have. It’s not the history they want to record. Máni finds that he can only continue to grow and develop elsewhere, but a crucial energy and flutter of his heart is left behind.
“Moonstone” is wholly inventive, wildly beautiful and infectiously invigorating. The novel I can most closely compare it to would be Neil Bartlett's "The Disappearance Boy" in how the story radically re-views a nation's historical moments through a queer boy's perspective. It’s filled with startling imagery and fascinating ideas. This is a short, impactful novel like a dream you have around sunrise. It’s a tightly compressed tale whose meaning extends out far beyond its few pages.