Inside the whale’s belly 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 claims, are not unreal – they originate from the soil of Icelandic history and are real to his characters, even though they only occur in their minds, under form of erroneous perceptions or hallucinations. Instead, Sjón prefers the word “wonderful”. His work, and his country, are full of wonders: strange things that emerge and flow, all the time, on the basis of reality. The marvelous is all around us, he insists. We just need the vision to see it.
Sjon’s full name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson – a cascade of soft Gs and rolling Rs that sound, when he says it, like a liquid secret song, sung deep in his throat, to a shy baby horse. He was born in 1962, in a Reykjavík that was, in many ways, still a village: small, drab, remote, conservative, homogeneous. Iceland looked like the edge of the world and Sjón grew up on the edge of this edge. He was the only child of a single mother, and they moved, when he was 10, to a freshly sunk neighborhood on the outskirts of town called Breidholt. (By Reykjavík’s miniature standards, the outskirts mean about a 10-minute drive to the city center.) Breidholt was intended accommodation: a large complex of brutalist concrete apartment buildings isolated in a muddy wasteland. Every time it rained, the parking lot turned into a brown lake. And yet this wasteland was surrounded by ancient Icelandic beauty: moors, trees, birds, a river full of leaping salmon. Sjón often thinks of this juxtaposition: these two very different worlds, between which he switched at will. The fluidity of the landscape, he says, helped create a similar fluidity in his imagination.
As a child, Sjón was precocious, eager for world culture. He remembers watching “Mary Poppins” at the age of 4 and being shocked by a strange moment at the end when the handle of his umbrella, 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 as programs, researching every artist he had. mentioned, learning about international books and music. Finally, he discovers surrealism. It was exactly what was needed: jarring realities stacked on top of each other without explanation, transition, or excuse. Sjón became obsessed – a surrealist evangelist. It was then that he adopted the pseudonym Sjón. It was a perfect literary branding: his first name, Sigurjón, with the middle extracted. In Icelandic, sjon means “vision”.
Iceland in the 1970s was a strange place to be a teenager, especially with artistic ambitions. Reykjavík, the only real city in the country, had two cafes and two hotels. Sjón told me that the most exciting event for young people was a ritual known as “Hallaerisplanid” – a word that roughly translates to “Hardship Square” or, more colorfully, “The Cringe Zone”. Every weekend, huge masses of teenagers swarmed the city’s seedy little central plaza, then roamed for hours in loud, rowdy packs, looping over and over the narrow downtown streets. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, visiting Reykjavík, watched these thousands of kids from their hotel window with fascination. It would have been a perfectly existentialist spectacle – restless hordes, facing a vast nothingness, creating meaning by decree, through an absurd, provocative, repetitive, arbitrary ritual.
For Sjón, Reykjavík’s gloom 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 published his first collection of poetry himself, then sold it to a captive audience on the bus. From his brutalist apartment building, he wrote awe-inspiring letters to surrealists around the world, declaring a new Icelandic front of the movement. His mailbox was filled with replies from Japan, Portugal, Brazil, France. Eventually, Sjón was invited to visit ancient surrealists in Europe. While staying 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 at that time he felt he had been baptized into a new existence.
Returning to Reykjavík, Sjón helped found a surrealist group called Medúsa, in which he recruited other ambitious teenagers. One of those recruits was a girl from her neighborhood – a singer who would become, at the end of the 20th century, possibly the most famous Icelandic woman in the world. Björk was a musical prodigy; she got her first recording contract at age 11, after a song she performed for a school recital was broadcast on Iceland’s only radio station. She met Sjón at the age of 17, when he walked into the French hot chocolate store where she worked in the city center. Björk told me in an email that she was a “super introvert” at the time. She and Sjón formed a strong, acrobatic two-person group called Rocka Rocka Drum – “a liberating alter ego” to each of them, she recalls.
The members of Medúsa made noise all over Reykjavík. They argued over literature and threw art exhibitions in a garage and threw themselves into some bohemian freaks. Once, all the surrealists got drunk on absinthe and started roaming Reykjavík entirely on the rooftops of parked cars – one night that ended at a popular club, where Sjón bit a bouncer in the thigh, then recited André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism”. ”While lying face down in a police car. The Surrealists saw this as a great victory when they were denounced in the newspapers by the conservative Icelandic literary establishment. In one of the biggest thrills of his life, Sjón once heard himself attacked personally, over the radio, while riding the bus. Björk found it all exhilarating. “It was,” she told me, “like being absorbed into a magnificent DIY organic university: extreme fertility!