Saturday, December 29, 2018

A person is a composite of the times they live through

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 [...] They will only be complete when there is nothing left of them but ruins.
I started reading CoDex 1962, by Sjón, as I was flying to Iceland, anticipating a quintessentially Icelandic epic. Imagine my disorientation to find myself in an "old-world" German village.

The first book of this trilogy is a fairy-tale love story, and it won me over entirely. A young woman nurses back to health an unexpected guest at the guesthouse where she works — Leo, a Jew fleeing from Nazis. Together they mould a baby out of clay.

The second book proclaims itself a crime story, but while the events are driven by a couple of crimes, it didn't convey the tone of crime genre at all. It did introduce a host of new characters, and felt a bit madcap. Leo has kept his lump of clay moist with goat's milk. He emigrates to Iceland, learns Icelandic, and gains citizenship after much debate over a state-approved name. He enlists the aid of a Russian spy and an American boxer to regain possession of the gold in a werewolf stamp dealer's tooth required to complete the alchemy of the golem. His son Josef will finally be born in 1962.

The third book is allegedly a science fiction story, but I struggle to find sci-fi elements in it beyond the genetics factor. It's a bit fantastical, and there's something like a Greek chorus happening.

I managed to finish this novel just hours before my library copy expired. I regret that I didn't have time to review the passages I'd noted. I loved sections of this book, many of the seemingly incidental anecdotes. Parts of it failed to keep my attention from wandering (I'm pretty sure it's not you, CoDex 1962, it's me — I have a lot going on in my head these days). And I'm still having trouble making sense of the novel as a whole.

I liked it well enough that I want to read it again. I liked its weirdness.

Reviews invoke Kafka, Borges, Bulgakov, Bruno Schulz, Günter Grass, Laurence Sterne. "Bosch meets Chagall, with touches of Tarantino." I say, Schulz yes, Grass probably.

I'm thinking Bolaño via Wim Wenders.

The third part is redolent of the fourth part of Bolaño's 2666. Minus the horror. It's the litany of deaths it recounts. (And some of the conceptions and deaths are a bit gruesome.) It's numbing. It lists birth and death dates for every girl and boy born in 1962. Many of the deaths occur within days of birth. The number of people who make it through adolescence into full adulthood dwindles. Most of this book consists of interviews with adults born in 1962.

There are plenty of angels throughout the trilogy, including most prominently the Archangel Gabriel (charged with heralding the Apocalypse), which have a very Wings of Desire vibe — their role is to observe, bear witness (and in so doing possibly ease suffering or at least the pain of existence?).

I'm not sure what the overall takeaway is. The book is narrated by (mostly?) Josef with frequent interruptions (I'm not sure by whom), and meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and narrative structure. We all have a story to tell, and every story is the story of everything.

Full Stop: CoDex 1962 – Sjón
For Sjón, one man’s story is more than the story of his own life. It is the story of Iceland, heaven and hell, or even the entire world. And in creating such a convoluted narrative, he weaves more subtle threads throughout the work that tie the novels together, around more elusive ideas than plot and genre: the nature of the soul, the purpose of storytelling, and the place of the generation born in 1962, the year that Sjón and Jósef were born.
Guardian: CoDex 1962 by Sjón review – a wild odyssey from the Icelandic trickster
Sjón is also instructing the reader, and this authorial awareness of the art of storytelling is evident throughout, not as a flaw but rather as a consolidation of his weirdly cohesive attention to detail. The reader will also require patience.
Los Angeles Review of Books: The Whole Human Tapestry: Sjón's Sprawling CoDex 1962 Trilogy
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.
New York Times: An Epic From Iceland, Complete With Unicorns, Angels and a Stamp-Collecting Werewolf
This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each section is a honeycomb. Stories are nested in stories and crack open to reveal rumor and anecdote, prose poems, tendrils of myth. This abundance isn’t an empty show of virtuosity but rooted in Sjon’s belief in the power and obligation of old-fashioned storytelling.
Interview (CBC: Writers and Company)


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