November 25, 2022

In the Belly of the Whale with Sjón

When talking about his work, Sjón rejects the word “fantastic”. Fantastic, he says, implies unreality. Even the most improbable events in his books, he argues, aren’t unreal – they grow from the soil of Icelandic history, and they’re real to his characters, even if they only happen in their minds. , in the form of erroneous perceptions or hallucinations. Instead, Sjón prefers the word “wonderful”. His work, and his country, are full of wonders: strange things that arise and flow, all the time, on the bedrock of reality. The marvelous is all around us, he insists. We just need the vision to see it.

Sjon’s full name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson – a cascade of soft Gs and rolling Rs that sounds, when he says it, like a secret liquid song, sung deep in his throat, to a shy baby horse. He was born in 1962, in a Reykjavík that was, in many ways, still a village: small, drab, isolated, conservative, homogeneous. Iceland felt like the edge of the world, and Sjón grew up on the edge of that edge. He was the only child of a single mother, and they moved, when he was 10, to a freshly sunk neighborhood on the outskirts of town called Breidholt. (By Reykjavík’s miniature standards, the outskirts means about a 10-minute drive from the city center.) Breidholt was intended housing: a large complex of isolated brutalist concrete apartment buildings in a muddy wasteland. Every time it rained, the parking lot turned into a brown lake. And yet, this wasteland was surrounded by ancient Icelandic beauty: moors, trees, birds, a river full of leaping salmon. Sjón often thinks about this juxtaposition: these two very different worlds, between which he switched at will. The fluidity of the landscape, he says, helped create a similar fluidity in his imagination.

As a child, Sjón was precocious, eager for world culture. He remembers watching “Mary Poppins” as a 4-year-old and being shocked by a weird moment at the end when his parrot-shaped umbrella handle suddenly opens its beak and speaks. (“I still haven’t recovered,” he says.) As a teenager, Sjón fell in love with David Bowie, and for years he studied Bowie’s interviews like programs, tracking down every artist he saw. mentioned, learning about international books and music. Finally, he discovers surrealism. It was exactly what was needed: discordant realities piled on top of each other without explanation or transition or excuse. Sjón became obsessed – a surreal evangelist. It was then that he adopted the pseudonym Sjón. It was perfect literary branding: his first name, Sigurjón, with the middle cut out. In Icelandic, sjon means “vision”.

Iceland in the 1970s was a strange place for a teenager, especially with artistic ambitions. Reykjavík, the only real city in the country, had two cafes and two hotels. Sjón told me that the most exciting event for young people was a ritual known as “Hallaerisplanid” – a word that roughly translates to “Hardship Square” or, more colorfully, “the Cringe Zone”. Every weekend, huge masses of teenagers would throng the town’s shabby little central square, then wander for hours in rowdy, rowdy packs, looping through the narrow downtown streets. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, visiting Reykjavík, watched with fascination these thousands of children from the window of their hotel. It would have been a perfectly existentialist spectacle – restless hordes, facing a vast nothingness, creating meaning out of fiat, through an absurd, provocative, repetitive, arbitrary ritual.

For Sjón, the gloom of Reykjavík was both impossible and ideal. He didn’t have much help, but he was free to become whatever he wanted. So he did. At 16, he self-published his first book of poetry, then sold it to a captive audience on the bus. From his brutalist apartment building, he wrote grandiose letters to surrealists around the world, declaring a new Icelandic front of the movement. His mailbox filled with replies from Japan, Portugal, Brazil, France. Eventually, Sjón got invited to visit former Surrealists in Europe. While staying with André Breton’s widow in France, he swam in a river and had a visionary experience with a dragonfly: she sat on his shoulder, flapping her wings, then flew away — and at that moment he felt as if he had been baptized into a new existence.

Back in Reykjavík, Sjón helped found a surrealist group called Medúsa, into which he recruited other ambitious teenagers. One of these recruits was a girl from her neighborhood, a singer who was to become, at the end of the 20th century, probably the most famous Icelander in the world. Björk was a musical prodigy; she got her first recording contract at age 11, after a song she performed for a school recital was played on Iceland’s only radio station. She met Sjón when he was 17 when he walked into the French chocolate factory where she worked downtown. Björk told me in an email that she was, at the time, a “super introvert”. She and Sjón formed a loud, raucous two-person band called Rocka Rocka Drum — “a liberating alter ego thing” for each of them, she recalls.

Members of Medúsa made noise all over Reykjavík. They argued over literature and held art exhibitions in a garage and threw themselves into bohemian jinks. Once all the surrealists got drunk on absinthe and started walking around Reykjavík entirely on the roofs of parked cars – a night that ended in a popular club, where Sjón bit a bouncer in the thigh , then recited André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism”. ” as he lay face down in a police car. The Surrealists considered it a great victory when they were denounced, in the newspapers, by Iceland’s conservative literary establishment. In one of the great thrills of his life, Sjón once heard himself being personally attacked, over the radio, while driving the bus. Björk found it all exhilarating. “It was,” she told me, “like being sucked into a gorgeous DIY bio university: extreme fertility!”