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Friday, January 21, 2022

In the belly of the whale with Sion

Speaking about his work, Sean refuses the word “fantastic”. Fantasy, he says, implies unreality. He argues that even the most incredible events in his books are not unreal – they grow out of the soil of Icelandic history and are real to his characters, even if they occur only in their minds, as misconceptions or hallucinations. Instead, Sion prefers the word “wonderful”. His work and his country are full of wonders: strange things that constantly arise and flow above the core of reality. The marvelous is all around us, he insists. We just need a vision to see it.

Sean’s full name is Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson, a cascade of soft Gs and rolling Rs that sounds like a secret flowing song as he says it, sung deep in his throat to a shy horse. He was born in 1962 in Reykjavik, which in many ways was still a village: small, boring, remote, conservative, homogenous. Iceland seemed to be the edge of the world, and Sion grew up on the edge of that edge. He was the only child of a single mother, and when he was 10 they moved to a newly developed area on the outskirts of the city called Breidholt. (By miniature Reykjavík standards, outskirts means about a 10-minute drive from the city center.) Breidholt was planned as housing: a large complex of brutalist concrete tenements standing alone in a muddy wasteland. Every time it rained, the parking lot turned into a brown lake. And yet this wasteland was surrounded by ancient Icelandic beauty: moorlands, trees, birds, a river full of jumping salmon. Sion often thinks about this juxtaposition: two completely different worlds that he switched between at will. The fluidity of the landscape, he says, helped create the same fluidity in his imagination.

As a child, Sion was precocious, hungry for world culture. He remembers watching Mary Poppins at the age of 4 and was shocked by the eerie moment at the end when the handle of her parrot-shaped umbrella suddenly opens its beak and speaks. (“I still haven’t recovered,” he says.) As a teenager, Sion fell in love with David Bowie and spent years studying Bowie interviews like programs, keeping track of all the artists he mentioned, studying international books and books. Music. Finally, he discovered surrealism. It felt exactly right: conflicting realities, stacked on top of each other without explanation, transition, or apology. Sion became an obsessive surrealist evangelist. It was then that he took the pseudonym Sion. It was the perfect literary stigma: his real name, Sigurkhon, with the middle crossed out. in Icelandic sight means “vision”.

Iceland in the 1970s was an odd place for a teenager, especially with artistic ambitions. Reykjavik, the only real city in the country, had two coffee houses and two hotels. Sion told me that the most exciting experience for the young people was the ritual known as “Hallerisplanid” – a word that roughly translates to “Difficulty Square” or, more colorfully, “Abomination Zone.” Every weekend, huge masses of teenagers gathered in the shabby little central square of the city, and then for hours, noisy, rowdy flocks roamed the narrow streets in the center of the city. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, during their visit to Reykjavik, watched with admiration these thousands of children from the window of their hotel. It would be a completely existentialist spectacle – restless hordes in the face of vast nothingness create meaning by decree, through an absurd, defiant, repetitive, arbitrary ritual.

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For Sion, the bleakness of Reykjavik was both impossible and ideal. He didn’t have much help, but he was free to become whatever he wanted to be. And so he did. At 16, he self-published his first book of poetry and then sold it to the public on a bus. From his brutalist apartment building, he wrote epic letters to surrealists around the world, announcing the new Icelandic front of the movement. His mailbox was filled with replies from Japan, Portugal, Brazil, France. Eventually Sion was invited to visit the Old Surrealists in Europe. During his stay with André Breton’s widow in France, he was swimming in a river and had a vision of a dragonfly: it landed on his shoulder, flapped its wings, then took off – and at that moment he felt himself being baptized into a new existence.

Back in Reykjavik, Sean helped found a surrealist group called Medusa, into which he recruited other ambitious teenagers. One of these recruits was a girl from his area, a singer who by the end of the 20th century would probably be the most famous Icelandic woman in the world. Björk was a musical prodigy; she got her first recording contract at age 11, after a song she performed at a school concert was played on Iceland’s only radio station. She met Sean when she was 17 when he walked into a French hot chocolate shop where she worked downtown. Björk told me via email that she was a “super introvert” at the time. She and Sion formed a loud, solid two-piece band called Rocka Rocka Drum—the “liberating alter egos” for each of them, she recalls.

Members of Medusa made a fuss all over Reykjavik. They argued about literature, held art exhibitions in the garage, and indulged in bohemian fun. One day, all the Surrealists drank absinthe and went for a walk around Reykjavik exclusively on the roofs of parked cars – a night that ended in a popular club where Sean bit the bouncer on the thigh, and then recited Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto”. lying face down in a police car. The Surrealists considered it a great victory when they were denounced in the newspapers by Iceland’s conservative literary circles. was on the bus. Björk found it all exhilarating. “It was like,” she told me, “like being swallowed up in a great makeshift organic university: extreme fertility!”

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