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Into 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, are not unreal — they grow from the soil of Icelandic history, and they are real for his characters, even if they happen only in their minds, as misperceptions or hallucinations. Instead, Sjón prefers the word “marvelous.” His work, and his country, are full of marvels: strange things that emerge and flow, all the time, over the bedrock of reality. The marvelous is all around us, he insists. We just need the vision to see it.

Sjón’s full name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson — a cascade of soft G’s and rolling R’s 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, into a Reykjavík that was, in many ways, still a village: small, dull, remote, 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, into a freshly poured neighborhood on the outskirts of the city called Breidholt. (By the miniature standards of Reykjavík, outskirts means about a 10-minute drive from downtown.) Breidholt was planned housing: a big complex of Brutalist concrete apartment blocks standing alone in a muddy wasteland. Every time it rained, the parking lot turned into a brown lake. And yet that wasteland was surrounded by ancient Icelandic beauty: moors, trees, birds, a river full of leaping salmon. Sjón often thinks about this juxtaposition: those two vastly different worlds, which he toggled between at will. The fluidity of the landscape, he says, helped create a similar fluidity in his imagination.

As a boy, Sjón was precocious, hungry for world culture. He remembers watching “Mary Poppins” at age 4 and being shocked by an uncanny moment at the end when her umbrella handle, shaped like a parrot, 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 syllabuses, tracking down all the artists he mentioned, educating himself about international books and music. Finally, he discovered Surrealism. It felt exactly right: discordant realities stacked on top of each other without explanation or transition or apology. Sjón became obsessed — a Surrealist evangelist. This is when he adopted the pen name Sjón. It was a perfect bit of literary branding: his given name, Sigurjón, with the middle extracted. In Icelandic, sjón means “vision.”

Iceland, in the 1970s, was a strange place to be a teenager, especially one with artistic ambitions. Reykjavík, the country’s only real city, had two coffee shops and two hotels. Sjón told me that the most exciting event, for young people, was a ritual known as “Hallaerisplanid” — a word that translates, roughly, as “Hardship Square” or, more colorfully, “the Cringe Zone.” Every weekend, huge masses of teenagers would mob the city’s shabby little central plaza, then walk around for hours in loud, rowdy packs, looping over and over through the narrow downtown streets. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, on a visit to Reykjavík, watched these thousands of kids from their hotel window with fascination. It would have been a perfectly existentialist spectacle — restless hordes, in the face of a vast nothingness, creating meaning by fiat, through an absurd, defiant, repetitive, arbitrary ritual.

For Sjón, the bleakness 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 captive audiences on the bus. From his Brutalist apartment building, he wrote grandiose letters to Surrealists all over the world, declaring a new Icelandic front of the movement. His mailbox filled with responses from Japan, Portugal, Brazil, France. Eventually, Sjón got himself invited to visit old Surrealists in Europe. On a stay with André Breton’s widow, in France, he swam in a river and had a visionary experience with a dragonfly: It sat on his shoulder, vibrating its wings, then took off — and in that moment he felt 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 his neighborhood — a singer who would go on to become, by the end of the 20th century, probably the most famous Icelander in the world. Björk was a musical prodigy; she got her first record deal at age 11, after a song she performed for a school recital was broadcast on Iceland’s only radio station. She met Sjón when she was 17, when he came into the French hot-chocolate shop 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, stunty two-person band called Rocka Rocka Drum — “a liberating alter ego thing” for each of them, she remembers.

The members of Medúsa made noise all over Reykjavík. They argued about literature and put on art shows in a garage and flung themselves into bohemian high jinks. One time, all the Surrealists got drunk on absinthe and proceeded to walk around Reykjavík entirely on the roofs of parked cars — a night that ended at a popular club, where Sjón bit a bouncer on the thigh, then recited André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” while lying face down in a police car. The Surrealists considered it a great victory when they were denounced, in newspapers, by Iceland’s conservative literary establishment. In one of the great thrills of his life, Sjón once heard himself attacked personally, on the radio, while he was riding the bus. Björk found all of this exhilarating. “It was,” she told me, “like being absorbed into a gorgeous D.I.Y. organic university: extreme fertility!”

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