CoDex 1962
by Sjón (Augu þín sáu mig, 1994; Með titrandi tár, 2001; Ég er sofandi hurð, 2016)
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (2018)
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2018)
528 pp

Authors are as much in thrall as readers to these natural attributes of stories and books.  Little do they suspect that most of what they consider new and innovative in their works is actually so old that millennia have passed since the idea first took shape in the mind of a female storyteller who passed it on by word of mouth until it was recorded on a clay tablet, papyrus, parchment or paper, wound up in a scroll or bound in a book, finally ending up as a literary innovation.

CoDex 1962, translated by Victoria Cribb from Sjón’s original, comprises three parts, the first two of which were published in the Icelandic separately, written over a span of more than twenty years. The novel arises from a pledge made by the author at the graveside of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi , creator of the Golem of Prague:

In 1990, when I went to Prague after the summer of the Velvet Revolution, I was going through a certain personal problem and I went to the cemetery to visit the grave of Judah Loew ben Bezalel . And when I saw people putting prayers and wishes on the gravestone of the rabbi, I decided to make a pact with him. I asked him to solve my problem, and I said that in return I would bring the golem into Icelandic literature. (see quote here)

“Thine Eyes Did See My Substance,” the first part of the combined novel (I will refer to them as parts rather than separate novels to avoid confusion), takes its title from Psalm 139:15-16:

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;

The Hebrew word translated as ‘my unperfect substance’ is where we take the term golem. The book also has an acknowledged influence from three books given to the author when he was 17 by the artist Alfreð Flóki: The Cinnamon Shops, by Bruno Schulz; The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov; and The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, as well as Icelandic folk stories and Icelandic modernists like Thor Vilhjálmsson and Guðbergur Bergsson.

The story is told by Jósef Loewe to an unidentified female interlocutor and set mostly in the small (fictional) German town of Kükenstadt during a war. It tells the story of Jósef’s birth, or rather the story of how his father Leo, an alchemist, met his mother, while seeking refuge in a tavern (and former house of ill-repute) and how she helped him breath life in to the golem that was to become Jósef.

Hinted at in the text, but never at all explicit, is that the setting is the 1940s, the war World War II, and that the emaciated Jósef is a Jewish escapee from a concentration camp.

As well as the influences acknowledged above, other clear points of comparison, stylistically and thematically, for what is a how-I-was-born-story, told in digressive and sometimes bawdy shaggy-dog style, with a strong dose of magic-realism and angelological overtones, are Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven.

See here an excerpt from the beginning that gives a good feel for the style.

The second part, “Iceland’s Thousand Years,” or “Með titrandi tár” (With a Quivering Tear”) takes its title from the Icelandic national anthem, “Lofsöngur,” quoted in the novel (my emphasis):

Ó, guð vors lands! Ó, lands vors guð!
Vér lofum þitt heilaga, heilaga nafn!
Úr sólkerfum himnanna hnýta þér krans
þínir herskarar, tímanna safn.
Fyrir þér er einn dagur sem þúsund ár
og þúsund ár dagur, ei meir:
eitt eilífðar smáblóm með titrandi tár,
sem tilbiður guð sinn og deyr.
Íslands þúsund ár,
Íslands þúsund ár,
eitt eilífðar smáblóm með titrandi tár,

sem tilbiður guð sinn og deyr.

translated:

O God of our land, O our land’s God,
We worship thy holy, holy name.
Thy crown is woven from the suns of heaven
By thy legions, the ages of time.
For thee a single day is as a thousand years,
And a thousand years a day are as but a day,
An everlasting flower with a quivering tear,
That prays to its God and dies.
Iceland’s thousand years, Iceland’s thousand years,
An everlasting flower with a quivering tear,

That prays to its God and then fades.
An everlasting flower with a quivering tear,
That prays to its God and then fades.

I am not normally a fan of changing titles in translation, but here the English translator/publisher presumably felt that “Með titrandi tár/with a quivering tear” would be rather more evocative for an Icelandic audience, and the more explicit reference to “Iceland’s thousand years” seem better for English speakers, and the biblical link to Psalm 90:4, itself quoted in 2 Peter 3:8, is made clearer.

This second part continues in the same narrated style. It begins in June 1944 with Leo (but not Jósef’s mother, who has stayed in her hometown) on a boat from Germany to refuge in Iceland. The application of gold is still required to bring Jósef, still a small mud figure, to full life as a child, but two Icelandic brothers on the boat swindle Leo out of his gold. That they had made a voluntary trip to early 1940s Germany gives a rather strong indication as to their political sympathies.

The novel then moves to 1962, as aided by two colorful characters — an African-American pro-wrestler from a religious fundamentalist family background and an eccentric Soviet spy. Leo attempts to recover his stolen gold, and solve a murder mystery, involving the black-market in postage stamp collection and werewolves, into the bargain.

This part finishes on August 27, 1962, formal birthdate of both Jósef and the author Sjón.

The third part, “I’m a Sleeping Door,” has a rather different tone.

Nationalism — of both the Nazis but also nationalistic views in Iceland — forms another backdrop to all of the novel, and the author has pointed to the Balkan Wars as one inspiration for the book. But at the times many commentators wrote those off as a previously suppressed legacy of World War II rather than a re-emergence of the phenomenon. That the third part was published in the year of Trump and Brexit, and with toxic nationalism becoming a major political force once again, makes the CoDex 1962 project all the more prescient.

The trilogy itself takes its title from a fictional biopharmaceutical company but one clearly inspired by the real-life DeCODE genetics, whose project to attempt to collect the DNA of all Icelanders, on the grounds that the purity of the gene pool made them uniquely valuable to study, caused significant controversy.

In the novel, the CoDex project is attempting to analyse the DNA of all 4,711 Icelanders born, like the author and main character, in 1962, which in the novel is a birth year particularly prone to genetic mutation, a phenomenon attributed to the fact that nuclear testing by the United States and Russia reached its peak in the period when these children would have been conceived and developing in the womb. And an Appendix to the novel details how the project led on to an attempt to build a super-computer to communicate with animal species, eventually leading to the extinction of mankind (but salvation of the Earth).

This speculative-fiction is in contrast to an alternative and more real-world explanation for Jósef’s origins than his self-told magic-realist story.

Stylistically, there is a significant emphasis on lists, including a cumulative list, Daša Drndic style, of the birth and death dates of those of the 1962 generation who passed away before the end of 2012, with brief descriptions of their generic causes of death. After each rendition, the cumulative dead greet their living fellows with, “Dear brothers and sisters, born in 1962, we await you here.” The last death recorded is that of Jósef who offers the alternative: “Dear Sjón, I await you here.”

This third part also contains several extended riffs — Javier Marías style (or David Walliams if I am being cheeky); for example, a two-page sentence on the different places the children of 1962 were conceived, a comment in a conversation “you promised you’d spare me the sort of banal childhood incidents that are so common everyone has poignant memories of them,” followed by a half page sentence with examples of such incidents, and two pages of the various world events in 1962, which points out that the most significant are the nuclear tests and the birth of author and character.

Storytelling is another key theme in the third part with the quote that opens my review one of several similar examples. And the author Sjón himself appears in the novel, briefly meeting Jósef. Knowing Sjón has a reputation as a surrealist poet, when asked who he is, Jósef replies:

I’m a Ferris wheel. I’m a conch. I’m a sleeping door.

This is a line Sjón later sub-consciously plagiarizes for a poem “Paper,” and which forms the title of this part of the novel. The significance of this rather passed me by compared to the explicitly biblical titles of Parts 1 and 2, but perhaps that is the point of surrealism.

Part 3 provides a fascinating contrast to Parts 1 and 2, and wraps the trilogy / novel up on a rather different note than one might have expected from the earlier sections. Indeed given the three parts were written over more than twenty years it is fascinating to wonder whether Sjón originally had a different end in mind (e.g., the deCODE project to create a national genetics database didn’t exist when the first novel was written).

Overall, a highly enjoyable novel. Something of a pastiche of much other great writing, but as the opening quote suggests part of the novel’s purpose is to argue that storytelling is cumulative.

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