October 1918, as the war is still raging in Europe, Katla, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, paints the sky with black and red, while the Spanish Flu empties the winding streets of Reykjavík. The eternal night fast descending, the land of Ice and Fire falls in sullenness and silence.
It is along these dead streets that the boy Máni Steinn, ‘Moonstone’, runs between his ‘gentlemen’ with whom he has sex for a few Kronur, between his great grandmother’s sister and the dreamy, wealthy Sóla G who seems forever comfortable in her own skin, and between the Old and New Cinema of Reykjavík—the only cinemas this little capital could offer at that time. The boy is quite at home there and then: the dark sky becomes the black screen, the bereft city a deserted movie set, as the boy’s wildest fantasy and the reality surrounding him are overlapping – a fact he would not confide to anyone.
But there are two other things that the boy would not confide to anyone either: his homosexual behaviour, and the fact that he, born to a leprous mother, had stayed in the Leper Hospital before being sent to the capital. Two things that, once revealed to the world, are enough for the world to flee from him. Or for him, abhorred by the world, to be cast out of it.
The juxtaposition of leprosy and homosexuality being but one example, Sjón’s novella is intricately woven with overlapping images: that of Máni Steinn’s solitary mind and the desolate streets of Reykjavík, of the silhouette of Irma Vep and the boy’s body locking with his gentlemen’s in a shadowed alley, of the greenish-yellow gas that fells so many young men on the Continent and that which is used to purify Reykjavík from the rampant disease, of Iceland being delivered from Danish rule and Máni Steinn being entered by the young Danish sailor in an act of steamy sex.
Máni Steinn vanishes, as if he were just one of those dreams that you cannot retain in the morning, no matter how hard you try.
Yet the most powerful, the most revealing overlapping image of all comes in the final few paragraphs of the novella, which are words of both confusion and revelation. In a succession of names that have never appeared in the novella before, Sjón suddenly speeds up the pace of narrative and leaps from the realm of dreams into that of reality. It is as it is when the Pevensie children cross the threshold of Narnia and come back to the world of man, or the Darlings leave the Neverland – while time passes on leisurely and dreamily over there, it does the opposite in this world, as if to make up for its laziness in the otherworld. Here, we follow the footsteps of an M. Peter Carlson, who proves to be, unmistakably, the grown-up Máni Steinn. By then, he has been living in England for ten years and now has returned to Reykjavík as an interpreter for the Pool Group. Carlson visits his great aunt’s tomb and the tombs of those who died of the Spanish Flu. He passes by Sóla G’s house from afar, wishing to keep the fierce, proud girl intact in his memory. Then he arrives at the Leper Hospital, where Carlson meets the eye of Sigurður Ásgrímsson, grandfather of Steinóflur Sævar or ‘Bósi’ – a gay man who will die of AIDS in days yet to come – and great grandfather of Sigurjón, who will become known as Sjón and write down the story of Máni Steinn in uncle Bósi’s memory. In the very moment when Sigurður imagines himself seeing a young man in the shadow, the past is brought face to face with the future, fantasy with actuality. Carlson’s journey along the old streets of the new Reykjavík, while retrieving Máni Steinn’s life as a boy, at the same erases Máni Steinn’s life story step by step by going backwards along the boy’s storyline. At last, at the door of the Leper Hospital, the precise point where Máni Steinn’s story starts, the circle is completed; the boy who never was finally comes to a vis-á-vis with the boy who was.
This final clash of impossibilities gives birth to a gigantic butterfly, black as Katla’s smoke in that grim winter of 1918, yet bewitchingly beautiful as Irma Vep. In a flutter of wings, Máni Steinn vanishes, as if he were just one of those dreams that you cannot retain in the morning, no matter how hard you try. But as Zhuangzi asks after his famous butterfly dream, who is the dreamer? Who is the dreamed?
Perhaps it does not matter at all. For Máni Steinn himself will only laugh, like he did upon hearing that, ironically, the movie-criticising doctor was sending him to a playwright in London. He laughs, and, “black wings beat wildly in his breast”.