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The Boy Who Never Was

by Sjón ; translated by Victoria Cribb

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-3742-1243-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Award-winning novelist, poet, and Björk collaborator Sjón (From the Mouth of the Whale, 2008, etc.) takes direct aim at Icelandic conservatism in this slim, meditative novella about a gay teen in Reykjavik on the eve of the Spanish Flu, circa 1918.

The story opens with Máni Steinn, a 16-year-old boy, engaged in sex with an older man, a matter-of-fact scene handled with workmanlike precision by the author. “Without a word the man flings a crumpled bank note at him and hastens away in the direction of town,” Sjón writes. “The boy smoothes out the note and grins; there are two of them, a whole fifteen krónur.” Despite dabbling in prostitution, Máni leads a solitary existence. His only occasional companion is a motorcycle-riding tough girl named Sóla G, beloved to Máni because she resembles the famous French actress Musidora. The book itself is a love letter to the cinema, as Máni spends most of his waking hours enraptured in the black-and-white flickering images, even as the flu begins to cut down the people of Reykjavik in scores. When the boy contracts the illness, the novel succumbs to hallucinatory passages interspersed with foreboding images, a condition from which neither Máni nor the story ever fully recovers. One particularly eerie moment stands out, as Máni and Sóla G prowl the cinemas fumigating them with chlorine gas, dressed in black. “The greenish yellow gas that had lately felled young men on the battlefields of Europe now drifts and rolls through the picture houses of Reykjavik,” Sjón writes. The novel eventually closes its circle—the boy survives and grows into adulthood in England and becomes involved with the burgeoning surrealist film movement—but the novel’s real point is for Sjón to pay tribute to an uncle who died of AIDS in 1993, a fact that only appears in the novel’s very last line.

A hazy portrait of a desperate historical moment.