Translated by Victoria Cribb
When we met Gunnar Kampen – the main character of ‘Red Milk’, the new novel by the internationally acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón – it is 1962 and he is dead: he fell forward in his pajamas on a London train, a map with a swastika in his hand. bag. From there we jump back to the 1940s and see Kampen as a child, on a day trip with his parents and sisters, not a swastika in sight. The rest of this sturdy, slim book, which is best read in one sitting, is animated by the question of how Kampen got from A to B. How did a boy from rural Iceland become a man who traveled abroad as an errand boy for the cause of global fascism?
The chapters move like the prose equivalent of flipbook images, fast and evocative. Here is Kampen, his father anxiously listening to the news of Hitler’s victories on his shortwave radio. Here he learns German from the head of a local cycling club, a Nazi sympathizer. Here he is as a teenager, writing passionate letters to neo-Nazis around the world, including a Norwegian uncle he has never met, informing them of his efforts to keep the fascist flame alive in Iceland, enjoying the thrill of compassion for like-minded souls around the world.
Sjón’s story, based on research into a real-life group of Icelandic neo-Nazis, ties in nicely with current preoccupations about the revival of fascism. The main message – made explicit in an afterword – is that most Nazis were people like you and me, “normal to the point of banality”, their actions inspired by universal emotions such as the desire to belong. This is hardly an original insight, but it is certainly true, and worthy territory for literary art, still our great form for exploring how ideas live in the real world. Unfortunately, “Red Milk” goes too fast to leave much room for banality: because the total number of incidents is so low, they are almost all immediately squeezed into the meaning as another stopover on the road from Kampen to Nazism. More than once I had to think of cheap biopics, which distort life by shooting scenes only because of their ability to map a journey whose destination we already know.
The novel feels boldest when it embraces the mundane and allows Nazism to drift to the edges of the frame. Writing to his mother during a trip to Germany, Kampen does not reflect on the influence of International Jewry or the importance of physical strength, but on the luxury of German trains, the pleasure of apple strudel, the beautiful views of the Alps. (“Yesterday we got to see the Dachau concentration camp north of Munich,” he says, and that’s all we hear on the subject.) In an attached letter to his mentally ill younger brother, he describes the rabbits he saw in the countryside. . By putting off the mundane for a while – the ultimate place for real politics – Sjón discovers how endlessly interesting it can be, and how much it can contain and hide.
But because these moments are so rare, the novel ultimately has a lightness that is out of step with its themes. (It’s possible that “Red Milk” will feel differently to readers in Iceland, where, according to Sjón’s afterword, the existence of Nazi sympathizers is a kind of suppressed zone in the national psyche.) Many of Sjón’s other novels ( my favorites include “The Blue Fox” and “The Whispering Muse”) are equally slim, but feel spacious thanks to the casual inclusion of surreal and supernatural elements: golems, enchanted foxes, walking corpses, presented not as an explanation for the infinite strangeness of life, or even metaphors for it. They are just There, which evokes a stream of mystery that runs through eras and traditions and cannot be reduced to a simple proposition.
It would be easy to see real Nazism and fascism as subjects too important for Sjón’s usual impostor toolbox. But going beyond the mere facts of history to enter the realm of art always means taking risks with regard to the way stories are told and retold. In “Red Milk,” perhaps the overall sense of inadequacy has less to do with the small number of pages and more to do with the author’s abundance of caution, born—quite understandably—from his awareness of great danger lurking.