A clay figurine becomes human only to join the ranks of those fated to die in a world cursed by division and nationalism.
In this beguiling, surpassingly eccentric triptych, Icelandic novelist Sjón (Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, 2016, etc.) takes on, in turn, romance (classic, not Gothic), mystery, and science fiction to examine how people parse themselves into little camps and try to make their way through this harsh world. Each part of the (sometimes very loosely) joined narrative offers origin stories—how Reykjavík came to be (“The universal boy found the earth beautiful and shrank his hand so that he could touch it”), how a chicken saved the people of a tiny German village “from being slain by a ferocious berserker who once rampaged across the Continent,” how people live and die and are forgotten. The story begins with a Jewish fugitive who, hiding with a German girl, creates a clay child—a golem, that is to say. At war’s end, the fugitive makes his way to Iceland. There, as the story shifts into a noirish procedural, Leo Loewe is caught up in a murder case that, among other puzzles, has him trying to distinguish Nazi from mere nationalist—no easy matter, as anyone studying today’s headlines will know. Though a stolid Icelander assures Leo that “the Nazis had played truant from modern Icelandic history,” it’s an observation occasioned by the fact that he’s circumcised, as different from his neighbors as his clay creation, who eventually comes to life through curious alchemy. Jósef's transformation comes about in a different world, though, a biotechnological dystopia ruled by “nationalism and greed,” to say nothing of corporations and governments making hay of the Icelandic gene pool and strategic location. All humans, Sjón seems to instruct, are wanting, some more than others, but all bound to the same destiny, even as the ghosts of all those who came before await those "dear brothers and sisters, born in 1962,” like Sjón himself.
Though occasionally reminiscent of David Mitchell, Sjón’s work is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction. Strange—but stunning.