A clinical study on the birth and rise of a radical Neo-nazi individual in post-WW2 Iceland.
"That is to say , in order to begin to understand what makes it possible for people to heed the call of Nazism in all its guises (...) we must start with what we have in common with such people". (p. 145- Afterword)
His versatility as an artist has become a beacon of light for creators all over the world and his name is linked with some of the most extraordinary Icelandic feats in the fields of music, screenplay and literature during the past few decades. Sjón, born Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson in 1962, has repeatedly stirred up the waters of the Icelandic art world, with his most recent creative achievement being the script for Valdimar Jóhannsson's Lamb (original title: Dýrið), a film that earned the Prize of Originality in 2021 Cannes Film Festival and deeply divided both the audiences and the critics who seemed to perceive the production in a highly polarized manner, with some claiming that it is nothing less than an underrated masterpiece, while others arguing that it's a pretentious as well as boring story only saved by its spectacular optics. Sjón began his career as a representative of the neo-surrealist movement and quickly became a respected figure in Iceland's cultural life. He also formed a group, called Rocka Rocka Drum, along with the multi-talented singer, composer and actress Björk while they were both in their teenage years. When, later, Björk resolved to follow a solo career, Sjón kept writing lyrics for her and their collaboration bore fruit in the 2000 feature film Dancer in the Dark which was nominated for Best Original Song ("I've Seen it All") at both the 2001 Golden Globe Awards and the 2001 Academy Awards.
Known to the masses for his embracement of left-wing ideas, always opposed to anything associated with totalitarianism and racism, the Icelandic creator has thus far delivered several exquisite, slim in length -with only few exceptions such as his 2016 three-part epic Co-Dex 1962- pieces of high-quality literature loaded with scenes most often attributed to the schools of magic realism and surrealism, also frequently using bits and pieces from the rich Icelandic mythology and tradition of the native sagas. In Red Milk, Sjón readdresses some of the themes that were featured in both CoDex 1962 and The Whispering Muse, the appeal of fascist ideology to the common people, focusing on how a young man can be transformed into a subject brimming with hatred against groups or individuals, even if his family doesn't condone his distorted set of principles and general ethical stance. In the book's afterword, the author discloses to the reader the whys and hows of his writing process, explicitly stating his aim to approach his subject matter from a different, more "serious" in his own words, perspective compared to the two previous aforementioned novels: “[T]hinking about it again, I realized that I had yet to explore the matter from a wholly serious point of view. That, in a sense, I ‘owed’ such a book to the victims of the ideology that I had until now satirized and even had fun with". Sjón has heretofore adopted a rather playful, thoroughly ironic standpoint as himself admits in the concluding pages of Red Milk, explaining the exceptional character of the text as an attempt to treat the advocates of tyranny as simple people who were led astray by various influences.
The novel's protagonist is Gunnar Kampen, a young man who was born during the turbulent years of World War 2 in Reykjavik and grew up in the tempestuous -politically- decade of the 1950s. Kampen died at the age of 24, in 1962, while being in a trip to England, and his death is the scene that opens the narrative with Sjón setting the story on a basis that most of his peers would choose to avoid as the knowledge that the main character had died, and in this case well before he could leave his mark on the world, reduces the tension of the story and diminishes the overall dramatic effect of the work. There is no attempt to "employ pathos or myth" as the author proclaims in the final part of the book. As Sjón clarifies, this was an entirely conscientious choice as he didn't want to draw an enervating psychological portrait of Gunnar, filled with profound insights on the processes by which a man turns to violent ideologies. Gunnar is outlined in a rather trite and unremarkable manner, "to the point of banality" as the author tells us in his brief afterword. The idea that the commonplace can be a source for evildoing has its roots in Hannah Arhendt's classic Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and that is also the reason for which Sjón opted for not employing some of his trademarks such as surrealism or Icelandic mythology, thus finally delivering a text that comes across as matter-of-fact and austere, nothing like a typical novel by that particular author.
After the initial scene of Gunnar's death sets the tone for the rest of the narrative, we travel back in time, in the period of the first years of the Second World War with the protagonist being just a toddler in a family of five. The author hints at a difficult relationship with his father, a blue-collar worker who has been abused by his own father and furthermore hates Hitler. Through some anecdotes from Gunnar's early years, we begin to form a picture in our heads regarding his origins. But don't expect anything reminiscent of extensive inner monologues meaning to illustrate the protagonist's thought process and state of mind. The author/narrator remains as detached as he can possibly be from what happens on page, resisting the urge to interpolate his own commentary and thus retaining the story's tonal consistency throughout the course of the novel. We read as Gunnar is approached by some Nazi sympathizers during his childhood and in a particularly strong scene, a woman wearing a Swastika broach, takes his hand and holds it up to a table lamp exclaiming: “Only white people let the light into themselves!”. The first part, of the three comprising the totality of the book, is succeeded by the second where the narrative form is radically altered and the storytelling is carried out by the citing of several of Gunnar's letters to various individuals. It is in those epistles that we get a glimpse of the character's first signs of becoming radicalized: "people's attention must be drawn to the ever increasing hold, that the Synagogue of Satan has on the world, through international organizations, Hollywood, major newspapers and universities".
The measured and devoid of anything ornamental prose by Sjón is effectively interpreted by one of the most seasoned translators -from the Icelandic language into English- in the contemporary literary scene, Victoria Cribb. Lindsay Semet, in her review of the book in Asymptote (read it here) writes: Cribb’s translation gorgeously maintains the economy of Sjón’s writing; by resisting the urge to elaborate, by committing to word choice with a poetic conscious, it protects in English the potential for diverse interpretations". Red Milk is a bright example of impeccable rendition in the English language, stressing the critical role of the translator's work in connecting the author with foreign readers. Though, I can understand, and perhaps even entertain, Sjón's intentions regarding his latest work, I think that both the writing style and characterization seem a bit too simplistic, falling flat in the end and leaving the reader feeling that this could be much more intriguing if the Icelandic wordsmith followed his traditional recipe, creating sentences that urge you to read them aloud in order to bask in their brilliance. The book is not so much about the neo-fascist phenomenon that remains topical all around Europe today, but a clinical study on the banality of human existence which may lead in the most dire of behaviors. L. Semel summarizes the novel's essence as follows: "Gunnar associates himself with this giant monster, and yet he himself is so small. In this way, the novel offers not so much a comment on the dangers or the spread of fascism as on the very littleness, the randomness, of being human. The novel turns a monster into a shadow. But it is a trick. The monster is real". Moreover, the author implants the names of several real historical figures relating to the Neo-nazi movement as existed during the after-war era such as George Lincoln Rockwell, longtime leader of the American Nazi Party and the infamous Savitri Devi who both spent some time in Iceland. Plus, there are some brief mentions in critical moments for the country in the post-war years such as the the British occupation during the war years, Iceland becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and others. This is definitely not the most enticing of Sjón's literary achievements, however it remains a sold choice for fans of literary and historical fiction.