A review of Red Milk by Sjón

Reviewed by Dimitris Passas

Red Milk
by Sjón
Sceptre (Hatchette)
Paperback, May 2022, ISBN: 9781529355925

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, screenwriting, 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 achievement being the script for Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (original title: Dýrið), a film that earned the Prize of Originality in the 2021 Cannes Film Festival while deeply dividing both the audiences and the critics who seemed to perceive the production in a highly polarized manner. 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. 

Known to the masses for his embracement of left-wing ideas and always opposed to anything associated with totalitarianism and racism, the Icelandic creator has thus far delivered several exquisite, slim in length -with only a few exceptions such as his 2016 three-part epic Co-Dex 1962– pieces of high-quality literature. The majority of them are loaded with scenes most often associated with the literary schools of magic realism and surrealism with the author 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 the ductile mind of a youngster can be transformed into a weapon against groups or individuals. In the book’s afterword, the author discloses to the reader the whys and how of his writing process, explicitly stating his goal to approach his subject matter from a different, more “serious” in his own words, perspective compared to his 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 pernicious 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 politically tempestuous decade of the 1950s. Kampen died at the age of 24, in 1962, while being on a trip to England and the narrative commences with his death 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 he 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, unremarkable manner, “to the point of banality” as the author tells us in his brief afterword. 

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 had been abused by his own father and 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 intending to illuminate the protagonist’s thought process and state of mind. The author/narrator remains as detached as he can possibly be from what happens on the 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 that comprise the totality of the book, is succeeded by the second where the narrative form is radically altered as the storytelling is now carried out by the citing of several of Gunnar’s letters to various individuals. It is through those epistles that we get a glimpse of the character’s first signs of radicalization: “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. . Red Milk is a bright example of an impeccable English translation, helping connect 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 around Europe today, but a clinical study on the banality of human existence which may lead to 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 of critical moments for the country in the post-war years such as the British occupation, 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 solid choice for fans of literary and historical fiction.

About the reviewer: Dimitris Passas is a freelance writer and the editor of the online magazine Tap the Line, in which he reviews books, movies, and TV series while also featuring articles, news, and Q+As with authors and artists. His academic background includes bachelor studies in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy. His work can also be found in ITW’s legendary magazine The Big Thrill and various online platforms such as DMovies, PopMatters, Off-Chance, Loud and Clear Reviews and others. His latest book reviews have been accepted for publication in the esteemed literary and film journals like World Literature Today, Alphaville and Bright Lights. Dimitris’s short and flash fiction can be found in various literary magazines such as 34th Parallel, The RavensPerch, Asylum Magazine (UK), A Thin Slice of Anxiety and several others.