Review: Red Milk by Sjon

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A timely and provocative novel about a mysterious Icelandic neo-Nazi and the enduring global allure of fascism.

In England in 1962, an Icelandic man is found dead on a train bound for Cheltenham Spa. In his possession, policemen find a map on which a swastika has been drawn with a red pen. Who was he, and where was he going?

In a novel that reads as both biography and mystery, the internationally celebrated novelist Sjón tells the story of Gunnar Kampen, the founder of Iceland’s anti-Semitic nationalist party, with ties to a burgeoning network of neo-Nazi groups across the globe. Told in a series of scenes and letters spanning Kampen’s lifetime–from his childhood in Reyjavík during the Second World War, in a household strongly opposed to Hitler and his views, through his education, political radicalization, and his final clandestine mission to England–Red Milk urges readers to confront the international legacy of twentieth-century fascism and the often unknowable forces that drive some people to extremism.

Based on one of the ringleaders of a little-known neo-Nazi group that operated in Reykjavík in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this taut and potent novel explores what shapes a young man and the enduring, disturbing allure of Nazi ideology. 


In Red Milk, Sjon’s newest work to be translated into English by Victoria Cribb, Sjon tells the fictionalized biography of the founder of the Icelandic pro-Nazi Nationalist party. Gunnar Kampen, the founder of the anti-Semetic party, is found dead on a train. As the story unfolds, going back from his childhood and his father listening to the radio during the Nazi invasion to the time right before he steps on the train, the mystery of his death unfolds.

The style Sjon uses is a straight, reporting style, and this is done on purpose. He does not want to delve too deep into the mind of Kampen. There is no inner dialogue, no long passages on why he feels the way he feels about Jews, and the only real moments that show Kampen’s firm beliefs is in some of his letters written to famous nationalists from around the world. Sjon purposefully does not let us get too close to this character, making sure that we are always a step away from the thought process of Kampen and his associates. This is off-putting for readers who are used to getting involved with characters. I do not think that he does this to protect the reader as much as to protect himself. The thought of writing long passages of racism and delving into the Nationalist movement too much would turn the story into one he did not want to tell. Instead we get the story at arms length, where we are being told the story but not being immersed in it. This is very purposeful. 

Sjon’s telling of the story of Gunnar Kampen has an underlying theme. Gunnar Kampen is a person trying to find relevance as a anti-Semetic leader, a founder of a neo-Nazi group, and someone of importance in the European movement of the time. But Kampen also lives in Iceland. From World War II to the time of Kampen’s death, the population of the entire country of Iceland grew from 132,000 to 170,000 people. Anyone who immigrated to Iceland had to take on an Icelandic name, and at one point in the book, Kampen is given a list of all of the Jews in Reykjavik, the capital, a list of 36 names. Kampen has staked his entire identity on being antt-semetic and pro-nationalist, an entire identity built on hating an insignificant number of the immigrant population. His desire to be important outweighs his importance. He knows the European nationalist movement does not need him, but he tries his best to insert himself into the conversation. He yearns to be a major part of the movement, even up until his death. The way that Sjon writes him, his significance is not really found.

This is a book that can be read comfortably in one sitting, and there are many things about Sjon’s work that I really find interesting. The way that he structures and tells stories makes for fun reading, even if there are times when the subject might not be the most enticing. I know I’m not too interested in the history of the neo-Nazi movement in Iceland, but I still enjoyed this novel. I will continue to read whatever Sjon releases.

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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