When talking about his work, Sjón dismisses the word ‘fantastic’. Fantastic, he says, implies unreality. Even the most improbable events in his books, he argues, are not unreal — they arise from the bottom of Icelandic history, and they are real to his characters, even if they only occur in their minds, as misconceptions or hallucinations. . Instead, Sjón prefers the word “beautiful.” His work and his country are full of wonders: strange things that crop up all the time and pour over the bedrock of reality. The miraculous is all around us, he emphasizes. We just need the vision to see it.
Full name of Sjon is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson – a waterfall of soft G’s and rolling R’s that, when he says it, sounds like a secret fluid song, sung deep in his throat, to a shy baby horse. He was born in 1962 in a Reykjavík that in many ways was still a village: small, dull, remote, conservative, homogeneous. Iceland felt like the edge of the world and Sjón grew up on the edge of that edge. He was the only child of a single mother, and when he was 10 they moved to Breidholt, a newly suffused neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. (By Reykjavík’s miniature standards, suburbs means about a 10-minute drive from downtown.) Breidholt was planned for housing: a large complex of brutalist concrete apartment blocks that stood alone in a muddy wasteland. Every time it rained, the parking lot turned into a brown lake. And yet that wasteland was surrounded by ancient Icelandic beauty: moors, trees, birds, a river full of leaping salmon. Sjón often thinks of this juxtaposition: those two completely 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 boy, Sjón was precocious, hungry for world culture. He recalls watching “Mary Poppins” at age 4 and was shocked by an eerie moment at the end when her umbrella handle, 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 syllabuses, tracked down all the artists he named, taught himself about international books and music. Finally, he discovered surrealism. It felt just right: conflicting realities piled on top of each other with no explanation, transition, or apology. Sjón became obsessed – a surrealist evangelist. This is when he took the pseudonym Sjón. It was a perfect piece of literary branding: his first name, Sigurjón, with the middle cut out. in Icelandic, sjon means “vision”.
Iceland in the 1970s was an odd place to be a teenager, especially one with artistic ambitions. Reykjavík, the country’s one and only city, had two coffee shops and two hotels. Sjón told me that the most exciting event for young people was a ritual known as “Hallaeriplanid” – a word that roughly translates as “Hardship Square” or, more colorfully, “the Cringe Zone”. Every weekend, huge crowds of teenagers would storm the city’s shabby little main square, then spend hours walking around in rowdy, rowdy packs, running over and over through the narrow streets of downtown. During a visit to Reykjavík, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir looked fascinated at these thousands of children from their hotel windows. It would have been a perfectly existentialist spectacle – restless hordes, in the face of a vast nothingness, creating meaning through fiat, through an absurd, defiant, repetitive, random 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 it. At the age of 16, he self-published his first collection of poetry and then sold it to a captive audience on the bus. From his brutalist apartment building, he wrote grandiose letters to surrealists around the world, proclaiming a new Icelandic front of the movement. His mailbox was filled with responses from Japan, Portugal, Brazil, France. Finally, Sjón was invited to visit old 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 its shoulder, twitched its wings, then left – and at that moment he felt that he was baptized into a new life.
Back in Reykjavík, Sjón helped start a surrealist group called Medúsa, into which he recruited other ambitious teenagers. One of these recruits was a girl from his neighborhood – a singer who would probably become the most famous Icelander in the world by the end of the 20th century. Björk was a musical prodigy; she got her first recording contract at the age of 11, after a song she played for a school recital was broadcast on Iceland’s only radio station. She met Sjón when she was 17, when he came to the French chocolate shop where she worked downtown. Björk told me in an email that she was a “super introvert” at the time. She and Sjón formed a loud, bumbling two-piece band called Rocka Rocka Drum — “a liberating alter ego thing” for each of them, she recalls.
The members of Medúsa were making noise all over Reykjavík. They argued about literature, put on art shows in a garage, and threw themselves into bohemian high jinks. At one point, all the surrealists got drunk with absinthe and wandered around Reykjavík, completely on the roofs of parked cars—a night that ended in a popular club, where Sjón bit a bouncer on the thigh and then André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism” while lying face down in a police car. The Surrealists considered it a great victory when they were denounced in newspapers by Iceland’s conservative literary establishment. In one of the greatest thrills of his life, Sjón once heard himself being attacked personally, on the radio, while on the bus. Björk found all this exciting. “It was,” she told me, “it was like going into a beautiful DIY university: extreme fertility!”