31 March 17 | Chad W. Post

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Since I (Chad) used this book in my class this spring, I thought I’d write it up for the series. Hi.



Moonstone by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 62%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%

Given Iceland’s population, it’s almost shocking that forty-six Icelandic works of fiction and poetry have been published in English translation since 2008. Over that time period, more books have been translated from Icelandic than from Czech. Or from Greek, Hungarian, or Flemish. In fact, there have been as many books translated from the Icelandic as there have from Hindi, Latvian, Persian, and Yiddish combined.

Sure, 10% of all Icelanders will publish a book over the course of their lifetime, providing a pretty solid pool of titles for publishers to choose from, but still—why Iceland?

Last summer, the Icelandic men’s soccer team took the world by storm, becoming the beloved Cinderella side of the Euro Cup. They rolled into the semifinals behind a slightly disconcerting nationalistic celebration, a feisty style of play fed by a “what do we have to lose?” underdog mentality, and some incredibly fun Twitter taunts from The Grapevine, Reykjavik’s English language paper.





Iceland was having its moment.

But then again, Iceland’s been having its moment for decades.

Björk. Sigur Rós. Múm. Of Monsters and Men. The Blue Lagoon. Skyr. Northern Lights. Renewable energy. Women’s Rights. Jón Gnarr’s mayorship. Damon Albarn’s bar. The fifth gait of an Icelandic horse. Fermented shark and Brennivén. Cheap flights to Europe if you stay overnight in Iceland. There are dozens of things about Iceland that make it really cool, that have made it an incredibly hip place to visit, or culture to import. (Except maybe the shark and Brennivén. Iceland can keep those.)

Although all of this interest in Iceland and Icelandic culture seems like a boon, there is an underlying tension at play. This is an island nation after all, one that, for most of its early history, was more or less cut off from the rest of the world, floating in the middle of nowhere. Its culture is uniquely Icelandic because it was able to develop on its own, somewhat removed from globalizing trends. Reykjavik is the only capital in western Europe without a McDonald’s or a Starbucks—almost all the restaurants and shops originated in Iceland.

This tension between being separate from the rest of the world while also wanting to participate in global culture plays itself out in Sjón’s most recent novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.

The novel centers on Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone), a young, gay boy who was born in the island’s leper colony, and who is obsessed with the movies. Moonstone has more of a plot than some of Sjón’s earlier books, but it’s still somewhat secondary to the poetic writing and atmosphere of the novel. A Danish ship arrives bringing the Spanish flu, and lots of people die, especially those who congregated at the movie theater. Máni Steinn also falls ill, giving Sjón the opportunity to show off his musical abilities in a three-chapter fever dream awash in symbolism, gray ooze, and body parts.

The toe of the shoe is thrust out from beneath the skirt and stamped down with such force that the floor creaks. Gray slime wells up between the boards. The air grows thick with the stench of rotting fish.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The hands reappear. The figure flings a pair of eyebrows onto the lid. Pain lacerates the boy. He raises a hand to his forehead, but it is shaking too much for him to feel whether his own brows are still there.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The figure withdraws its hands inside its clothes.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The gramophone voice buzzes inside the wooden box.

The sense of danger from the outside pervades the novel, not just in relation to the actual, literal infection that the Danes bring with them on their ship, but also in the corrupting power of foreign films. Dr. Garibaldi Árnason details this in a mini-manifesto:

_In the same fashion, the cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen, and whether it is the curve of Asta Nielsen’s back, Theda Bara’s naked shoulders, Pina Menichelli’s sensual eyelids [. . .] the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer’s existence and etch itself into his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them.

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.

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 . . .

I’m definitely oversimplifying this book, but reading Moonstone shortly after Gudbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, I’ve become fixed on the ways in which these books address the complexities of Iceland in the world, and, more specifically, of the idea of the “Icelandic Man.” Although using vastly different approaches, both novels open up a space through which to examine these tensions.

That’s why I think Moonstone deserves the Best Translated Book Award for fiction.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Will Eells

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a. . .

Read More >

Agnes
Agnes by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >