OCTOBER 4, 2018
WHAT TO MAKE of a trilogy of novels written in three different decades and published as one tale with an enigmatic name? A trilogy in which each novel declares its intended genre in its subtitle: a love story, a crime story, a science fiction story? A volume of 500 pages that spans Heaven and Earth as it takes on no less than the entire tapestry of human life as its subject? It’s an intimidating project, for both author and critic.
We might begin with the assumption that Sjón, the author of CoDex 1962, is skilled and sensitive enough to pull all of this off, that he is not merely displaying hubris and pretension, and that he is, in fact, one of the century’s great novelists, a man composing an oeuvre of masterpieces playful, self-referential, and genre-spanning enough for the 21st century. A writer who can spin a zany mystery dependent on corrupt philatelists and a purloined gold tooth may indeed be that.
We’d move on to consider the writer’s project on the sentence level, and his skill at character development. Is his language sufficiently well tuned and pleasing? Yes, he writes beautifully, thoughtfully, leaping from bawdy jokes to lyrical considerations of life and death. The 500-plus pages of the trilogy clip along as if the book is half that length. (All possible applause to the translator, Victoria Cribb, who has made the arduous task of transferring Sjón’s wide-ranging style and ready wit from Icelandic to English seem as if it must have been fun.) And his characters — even those as well trodden as the Archangel Gabriel — have lively voices and definitive motivations.
What about arc and structure? What about Barthes’s five narrative codes? Yes, all of these are in place, juggled lightly, as if they weigh nothing. Cultural code: biblical allusions abound, particularly in the first two books of the trilogy, which tell tangential stories about Gabriel becoming disillusioned and chasing after a maiden, among others. Underpinning the project are the Icelandic Sagas, the foundational texts of Sjón’s (highly literary) nation. Semantic and symbolic codes: ideas stand for other ideas so commonly that it’s not clear whether anything stands for itself. Is the clay child at the center of the story a revised Adam, or is he a new creature of Sjón’s own mythmaking? Is World War II the primary wound of Leo Loewe, the protagonist of the first two books, or is it the primary wound of the 20th century, and thus of every character in the trilogy? Proairetic and hermeneutic codes: the trilogy’s narration and the clay child’s fate are consistent mysteries resolved only in the middle of the third book. The tension of these mysteries makes every page hum.
CoDex 1962 opens in Kükenstadt, Germany, sometime in the mid-20th century. In German, this name translates to “chick city” — the town is named after a small statue of a chick “caught mid-sprint, its neck thrust out and head raised to the sky, beak gaping wide and stubby wings cocked.” In Swedish, however, it translates to “dick city,” an interlingual joke that cannot be lost on Sjón, whose puckishness and non-misogynistic treatment of sex are lovely, constant companions for the reader. (We may still be on page one, but this single detail and its dimensions are representative of the work that follows.)
The first two books of the trilogy are narrated by an unknown party to another unknown party who often interrupts and replies. Both speakers have a sense of humor, and the listener often has to yank the speaker back to the subject after extensive tangents. Their dialogue often feels Socratic — as in the Crito, perhaps, only without condescension:
“Not more stories!”
“But this is a literary allusion.”
But who or what is the subject? In the first book, Thine Eyes Did See My Substance, it seems to be a concentration camp escapee named Leo Loewe, who is taken in and nursed back to health in Kükenstadt by a maid, Marie-Sophie. She ultimately helps him to sculpt a clay boy he has smuggled in a hatbox. But the unknown narrator (potentially Sjón himself at this stage) frequently interrupts this narrative to tell fairy tales, Marie-Sophie’s unfortunate story, anecdotes of angels and biblical figures, and even, charmingly, the multifarious dreams of the citizens of Kükenstadt:
“Fräulein R— is standing by the blackboard with the class register in her hand, watching a white cat that is lying on an open atlas on the desk, giving birth to black kittens on the Atlantic Ocean.
The kittens slide out of the cat as if they were on a conveyor belt, and answer Fräulein R— with a feeble squeaking when she reads out the names of my classmates.
I wait in terror for my turn to come.”
Heinrich L—, 13 years old
The second book, Iceland’s Thousand Years, leaves Marie-Sophie and Kükenstadt behind entirely and picks up in 1944, when Leo immigrates to Iceland. Nearly 15 years later, after a series of farcical bureaucratic encounters reminiscent of those in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, he attains Icelandic citizenship. The farcical tone continues as Leo finds companions — a Soviet spy and an American boxer — to help him steal a gold tooth out of the mouth of an unscrupulous stamp dealer; the gold, in the form of his signet ring, was stolen from Leo when he was a concentration camp prisoner.
None of this is terribly clear at the time it’s narrated, but it eventually becomes so. This is true for a great deal of the action of this trilogy, which is often derailed or disguised by tangents, humor, or self-reflexivity, a practice that serves the overarching tensions resolved in the third installment. Leo must have his signet ring back to give life to his clay boy, Jósef, who is “born” at the end of Iceland’s Thousand Years, on August 27, 1962. It is not happenstance that Sjón and Jósef Loewe share a birth date.
Unsurprisingly, the third book of the trilogy, I’m a Sleeping Door, is not as joyful or fraught with tangent as the first two. Twenty-two years separate the publication of the first and final installments of CoDex 1962, and few novelists lighten up as they get older. Plus, this last novel deals extensively with death while transforming much of the fancy of the first two books back into realistic, unmagical incidents. To say more would be to spoil the experience of reading the first two books, but in brief, certain long-sustained mysteries, once resolved, become somber facts of life and mundane piles of paperwork.
The meaning of the trilogy’s title becomes clear, as well. CoDex is the name of a company that investigates genetic anomalies appearing in people born in Reykjavik in 1962, Jósef Loewe (and Sjón) among them. I’m a Sleeping Door also contains an ever-growing list — a codex — of the births and deaths of those same people. Multiple chapters are given over to this list, which is accompanied by a kind of continuing stage play that mourns their deaths, as ever more children born that year die even if they survive infancy. Every one of these chapters ends the same way: “Dear brothers and sisters, born in 1962, we await you here.”
Beyond that, the trilogy is a codex in a more obscure sense. It stacks up stories in a disorganized way, moving from one idea to the next without warning or precedent. So although it’s nothing like a catalog or encyclopedic record, it is a codex of the human condition:
A person is a composite of the times they live through — a combination of the events they have witnessed or taken part in, whether willingly or not; a collection of dreams and thoughts, whether their own or strangers’; a concoction of deeds done by themselves and others, whether friends or enemies; a compilation of stories remembered or forgotten, from distant parts or the next room — and every time an event or idea touches them, affects their existence, rocks their little world and the wider one too, a stone is added to the structure that they are destined to become […] [T]hey will only be complete when there is nothing left of them but ruins.
CoDex 1962 records many genres, modes of feeling, and personal histories. It splits its attentions unevenly between Leo, Jósef, and a handful of other characters, and it does not resolve many of its conflicts. However, the sprawl of the trilogy, the messiness, the tonal contradictions, the storytelling that often confuses and occasionally bores — all these qualities offer a window into the broader human story that a novel coloring strictly inside the lines could never achieve. It’s a risky, funny, sexy, entirely unique book, and its odd corners make it easier to love.
Few questions remain at the trilogy’s close aside from threads the author clearly dropped with no intention of resolving them, despite the listener’s assertion that “[e]veryone has the right to have their story told to the end.” The only significant question left is whether these collected novels add up to something. I’m not sure they do. CoDex 1962 is a delight and a resounding literary achievement, but it’s lesser than the sum of its parts. Despite all the biblical references and the role of World War II and the deft genre-mixing and the 20-some years of authorial effort represented here, I’m not sure it says anything profound. Except that life is discrete and finite, ever bordered by birth and death. Which is not a lesson I needed a novel to teach me.
But then I consider the project of postmodernism, and whether a postmodern novel has to add up to or say anything, and it doesn’t, really. It can meet all of Barthes’s specifications and still not contain life-changing meaning. It can just be itself, a lark, an art object that makes the world a little more interesting for a spell. Besides, this book springs from a different literary tradition than American novels do, one older and wilder and more magical than our irritating Puritan roots.
Perhaps that’s why CoDex 1962 dissatisfied me: I sought a lesson in the Calvinist sense, but I shouldn’t have. Sometimes, particularly in Sjón’s reckoning, gods and mortals play and rut and steal and laugh, and that’s all there is to life. As Jósef narrates near the end of Iceland’s Thousand Years,
But if you, dear reader, continue with this tale, in spite of my confession that what follows is nothing but make-believe, there’s one thing I can promise you in recompense: it’s an incredibly exciting story that will hold you gripped to the very end.