Review: CoDex 1962 by Sjon

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Synopsis:

Spanning eras, continents, and genres, CoDex 1962—twenty years in the making—is Sjón’s epic three-part masterpiece

Over the course of four dazzling novels translated into dozens of languages, Sjón has earned a global reputation as one of the world’s most interesting writers. But what the world has never been able to read is his great trilogy of novels, known collectively as CoDex 1962—now finally complete.

Josef Löwe, the narrator, was born in 1962—the same year, the same moment even, as Sjón. Josef’s story, however, stretches back decades in the form of Leo Löwe—a Jewish fugitive during World War II who has an affair with a maid in a German inn; together, they form a baby from a piece of clay. If the first volume is a love story, the second is a crime story: Löwe arrives in Iceland with the clay-baby inside a hatbox, only to be embroiled in a murder mystery—but by the end of the volume, his clay son has come to life. And in the final volume, set in present-day Reykjavík, Josef’s story becomes science fiction as he crosses paths with the outlandish CEO of a biotech company (based closely on reality) who brings the story of genetics and genesis full circle. But the future, according to Sjón, is not so dark as it seems.

In CoDex 1962, Sjón has woven ancient and modern material and folklore and cosmic myths into a singular masterpiece—encompassing genre fiction, theology, expressionist film, comic strips, fortean studies, genetics, and, of course, the rich tradition of Icelandic storytelling.

Review:

There are some novels that are so long and complex that they are hard to review. CoDex 1962, the novel that started the conversations about Icelandic author Sjon is one of those novels. CoDex 1962 started as three separate novellas that have been published into one complete volume, but the three novellas have enough continuity that it feels as if they were written at one time, even if they were published in 1994, 2001, and 2016. The three sections are also described as different types of story. Part one is a love story, part two is a crime story, and part three is a science fiction story. I can see that these genres exist, but they are more an impression of the genre than a very recognizable version. With all of the intertwining stories, genres, and styles, the tangents and wander paths, it is hard to paint a cohesive picture of the story without telling every single part of the story. 

The book is narrated by Josef Loewe, an animated clay figure that his father, Leo, carries him around in a hatbox until it is time for him to be born. The first two sections are narrated by Josef as he tells the story of his father. The first is his father leaving from Germany for Iceland, after being hidden in the walls of a boarding house. The second is how Leo gets his ring back after it is stolen from him during his boat ride from Germany to Iceland. The third is the story of Josef, about 1962, when Josef is born, and nuclear bombs that go off and mutate many of the kids born that year. Josef himself is being interviewed, as an adult by a company called CoDex, because he suffers from Stone Man Syndrome, where his soft tissue turns into bone. He narrates his life through stories, folklore, and distractions that makes me realize that he had been narrating the entire book, but it was only in the end that this is revealed. 

There are so many themes in this novel, and there is so much depth in the writing and storytelling that a reader could read this multiple times without understanding everything. It feels like nothing is off limits, and there are even a few times when Sjon shows up in the third part as himself. The last section, where CoDex and the geneticist who is in charge of oral histories recorded by the company, is about Josef, but it is also about 1962 and how there have been so many people die already from that year. There is a sense of dread from Sjon (who was also born that year) that time is running out. 

This whole novel is ambitious and surreal. There are times when it is confusing, times when it does make any sense, times when it rambles for pages in the wrong direction, times when it tackles huge topics like immigration, anti-Semitism, the end of the world, werewolves, golems, and of course, stamp collecting. Compared to his latest novel, Red Milk, these two books do not even seem to be written by the same author. Red Milk is the antithesis of this novel. CoDex 1962 is not easy to read or easy to keep track of (fortunately there is an entire recap of the plot at one point in the last 100 pages) but it is impossible to not find this an impressive feat. 

Sjon’s works are great, and he is always trying to do new things with his writings. CoDex1962 is a tough novel, but it is worth the effort. If you are just curious about Sjon’s writing though, I would suggest picking up one of his shorter works before tackling this opus.

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