Book review of Moonstone – The boy who never was

Vimal Kumar
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The novel is written by Icelandic writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson. He is also known as Sjón and his name is pronounced “shown”. It is translated into English by Victoria Cribb. The title of the book derives its name from the protagonist name Máni Steinn Karlsson which is literally in Icelandic is moon/máni and stone/steinn which leads to the text moonstone.

The story is set during 1918 when the Spanish flu epidemic hit Iceland with the docking of the steamship Botnia. It was the time when the independence of Iceland, the eruption of the local volcano, Katla, the First World War happened. The story revolves around the “boy who never was” is one Máni Steinn Karlsson, a 16-year-old cinephile and homosexual, who has sex, not coerced but enjoys, with men for money in Reykjavík. He roams the city getting money for sex with sailors and the men of the city who come from all levels of society.

He was passionate about movies, so the sex. He became addicted to cinema as he was with sexual activities that were perceived as perversion. Apart from his love of films, he loves a  girl, Sóla, who wears black like a vampire in the old movies.

As the Flue gripped Reykjavík in its claw, people started to die, and the city became deserted and public spaces became the ground of the protagonist’s imagination.  Here is a paragraph describing the situation:

Reykjavik has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoof-beats, no rattling of cartwheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of the warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants. The doors of the shops neither open nor close – no one goes in, no one comes out – no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.
No one says good morning. No one says goodnight.

As more films come to the city, the more the religious and traditional members worry that it is a sign of the devil, leading teenagers into sexual temptation, or worse, modern thinking. This belief of evil gains all the more traction when Spanish flu hits and it becomes one of the places that cause the most contagion without anyone knowing. Dr. Garibaldi Árnason details the following in one of the articles:

Film is thus immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame.

Slowly, one by one, the musicians who accompany the performances fall ill, until finally “the last person in Reykjavík capable of picking out a tune” faints, the lights go up, and the audience looks around to realize that many among them are sick. As influenza tightens its grip, Màni starts to work as an assistant to a doctor, driven in a motor car from one scene of suffering to the next by the enigmatic Sóla.

When he is caught out while having sex with a sailor off a recently arrived ship, the authorities exile him to be cured of his “sickness”.

The doctor’s viewpoint is brought into even sharper view after Máni is caught with another man:

It’s clear that the lad is not like other people . . . a homosexual [. . .] Hardly any cases known in this country . . . hasn’t become established . . . will proliferate if . . . My theory . . . a word of warning . . . men are rendered more susceptible to homosexuality by overindulgence in films.

The story concludes with a jump forward in time. In 1929, a group of artists arrive in Rekjavik.  One of them M. Peter Carlson is Máni Steinn, all grown up. He visits his grandmother’s grave, “The rowan saplings planted in 1919 have grown tall.

The Author used his art to tell a personal story that remains ambiguous till the very end. As it ended, it left an indelible mark on my mind which pushed me to move back a few pages back and reread. It is also an insightful depiction of culture, thought, understanding of the country where the story is set.  A vivid description of people’s attitude towards lepers and homosexuals and treatment of excessive indulgence of a movie as perversion. It is a great read.

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