Culture
Literature
Sjón, Happy Nihilist

Sjón, Happy Nihilist

The author at the edge of conversation, at the end of the world

Parker Yamasaki
Words by
Photos by
Hörður Sveinsson

Published December 12, 2014

“When ‘all the lights have gone out’ we will be left with our stories. At least we can keep doing that when we make our way to the end,” Sjón says near the edge of our conversation. And then he jumps: “You can say that I am the happy nihilist.” When we speak, Sjón is fresh off the plane from Denmark, where his most recent book, ‘Mánasteinn—drengurinn sem aldrei var til’ (“Moonstone—The Boy Who Never Was”), has just been released in Danish. His novels have been published in over twenty countries; he has been translated into over thirty languages, and is up to the neck in literary awards. Sjón has plenty to be happy about.

He also has plenty of reasons to be nihilistic. Minutes into our conversation, Sjón has already reached the assertion that “we are possibly facing our own extinction soon, the human kind is possibly not going to be here much longer.” We face a looming environmental meltdown. We are creating and confronting technologies that could contribute to our own demise. Social unrest pops like fireworks across the globe and politics carries on, glassy-eyed, watching them burst. These are problems so immense that they are nearly impossible to see from up close. Like one of those images made out of lots of tiny images. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the journalist, the author, the social critic to respond. Relying on the repetition of history and mimicking the enduring tales of the past, Sjón has found a way to keep his distance while remaining relevant.

Return, return

The best view of the past is from the present. This is common knowledge. Sjón has realised what fewer have: that perhaps the best view of the present is from the past. “It is always really difficult to understand what is going on in your own time,” Sjón admits, which is partly why ‘Mánasteinn’ is set in 1918. “It is set in the days of the Spanish flu, the Katla eruption, when Iceland became a sovereign country from Denmark,” he explains. “All of this happened in 1918. But it is really a chain of events that mirror ourselves today: we have the fear of epidemics, we have the endless discussion in Iceland about what it is to be an independent country, and the main character in the book is a gay sixteen-year-old kid who is obsessed with cinema.”

“I am drawn towards moments in history when we are faced with paradigm shifts. When two times come together when the old and the new face off in a way, when there are huge changes with what is possible, and what is acceptable.” 

To this end, his historical settings provide more than just a rich plot. They are a tool for examination. “None of us have been there [the past], so we all have a chance to read ourselves into these stories. Through tales from the past we are able to reflect on where we are now.” Sjón provides the reader a platform in the past from which we may observe our present.

Paradigm shift

Naturally, Sjón’s historical interests play a part in his process. Though he describes himself as a “cultural omnivore,” he does admit a penchant for periods of conflict. “I am drawn towards moments in history when we are faced with paradigm shifts. When two times come together when the old and the new face off in a way, when there are huge changes with what is possible, and what is acceptable,” he explains.

It is understandable, then, why Sjón would be so excited about our own great moment in history.” We are torn,” he says. “On the one hand we have created technology which demands we use our potentials more fully, and on the other hand we have used technologies to devise our own demise.” The theme of the extinction of the human race lurks throughout our conversation like a hunter stalking his prey. Albeit less quietly, like an unseasoned hunter, crashing through the woods raucously, swinging a machete and screaming. But the idea is no less intense than it is real. Which is precisely why Sjón turns to the fantastic. Specifically, to the myths.

“Myths are always about the ‘big’ realities we are facing. All the ‘big’ questions can be found in mythology,” he says. They are yet another tool that Sjón wields in the face of the “here and now,” another platform to stand on and observe things in their entirety. He elaborates: “The myths allow us to think about these things on the scale they really are. They place man in the universe, they bring us down to scale. For an author, the myths are really an amazing tool to work with.”

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Man of myth

To say Sjón is working with the myths might be a bit misleading. “I don’t use the myths, the myths use me,” he tells me, “they are using me to be re-told.” Then the myths breach personification and become nearly possessive: “Myths exist within all of us. We are somehow all born with a sense of a pantheon, which reflects both the enormous scale of the world and also common fundamentals of human society. The myths are within us, they just want to be heard.”

Many of us may be familiar with mythological story-lines, even specific characters, without realising it. We speak about the various manifestations of the myths in contemporary times. Sjón references the latest Avengers film, noting its clear parallel to Ragnarök, a series of apocalyptic future events that appear in the Eddas. “It was really Loki [a super-villain who by no sheer coincidence shares a name with a Nordic god in the original myth] who was bringing the end of the world,” he notes, “and the question presented to us: what can we do about it?”

“I think the myths always look for the maximum audience,” Sjón decides after contemplating the modern myths and gods for a bit. Sjón is here to provide that audience.

In an age that values rapid change, Sjón has chosen one of the most enduring acts of human expression: the act of storytelling. His historical content holds a mirror to the present. His use of myth allows us to grapple with what we see. In this way, his stories are histories—tales that have been told and will be re-told in dizzying circularity. Amidst our ever-changing realities, one may find some comfort in this rare consistency. Even “when ‘all the lights have gone out’ we will be left with our stories. At least we can keep doing that when we make our way to the end,” Sjón says near the edge of our conversation. And then he jumps…

 


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