Bodily Loss in Illness: The Phenomenology of Influenza in Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Avril Tynan // It is an uncanny experience to read Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was in 2021. Written in 2013 by renowned Icelandic author Sjón and translated into English by Victoria Cribb in 2016, the short novel tells the story of a pandemic that surges across Europe and devastates the isolated Icelandic capital. The pandemic Sjón recounts is not, of course, the current SARS–CoV–2 pandemic but rather the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and particularly savaged populations of healthy, young adults.

Set primarily over three months in the winter of 1918 in Reykjavík, Moonstone tells the story of 16-year-old Máni Steinn [mána/stein, moon/stone] Karlsson, who lives with his great-grandmother’s sister and has sex with ‘gentlemen’ for money. Máni’s two passions in life—a girl named Sóla G— and cinema—occupy most of his time, and he seems unconcerned and unaffected by the momentous events taking place both in Iceland and elsewhere in the world, including the independence referendum ratified with Denmark, the War, and the ‘Spanish flu.’ Yet Máni’s life, like those around him, will be upset by the arrival of the epidemic to Iceland aboard the Botnia passenger ship.[1] With uncanny parallels to contemporary pandemic responses, Reykjavík is rapidly transformed:

An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoofbeats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants.

The doors of the shops neither open nor close—no one goes in, no one comes out—no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.

No one says good morning. No one says good night. (49)

It is not difficult to see how a contemporary reader might be reminded of the spate of lockdowns and confinements that swept across the world in 2020 and 2021. As Icelanders receive reports from Denmark that ‘the symptoms of the disease are no more serious than might be expected from common influenza, and that there is no cause to resort to drastic and costly preventative measures, since the mortality rate must be regarded as within acceptable limits’ (31), the eerie repetition of history is a chilling reminder of the fatal mistakes that not only crippled Reykjavík in 1918 but paralyzed the world in 2020.

Image credit: Book cover, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (London: Hodder & Stoughton).

But Moonstone is not simply an accurate rendering of historic events on a geolocalized plane; the novel is also a surreal literary journey into the phenomenology of influenza. In S. Kay Toombs’ seminal work of phenomenology, The Meaning of Illness (1992), she outlines the ways in which illness is experienced as a global disruption of the lived body (90). Moreover, she gathers five ways in which illness-as-lived can be characterized through a series of losses that affect how the body is experienced in the world: loss of wholeness, loss of certainty, loss of control, loss of freedom to act, and loss of the familiar world (90). Of course, the focus on loss can be readily challenged in more contemporary phenomenological engagements with health that propose a more radical transformation in illness without necessarily implicating loss (Carel, Kidd and Pettigrew 2016; Carel 2018). Nonetheless, Toombs’ work provides a critical insight for reading Moonstone’s descriptions of Máni’s influenza as he eventually falls ill one day in the local cinema:

The nails of the boy’s left hand put on a spurt of growth, becoming as long as fingers in the blink of an eye. Both fingers and hand triple in size all in one go, with a cracking of the bones. He drops the mirror. His shadow is lying on the floor, stubbornly human in shape. The shadow stretches its limbs and leaps to its feet, distorting the boy.

*

“Tut, tut,” say the washerwomen when he reaches them. “Tut, tut, look how he’s dirtied himself!” They chivy him out of his clothes and sling him into the boiling water with the bloodied bedclothes. Push him to and fro with the laundry bats, pound him, lift him out and dunk him down again, until he’s as soft as linen.

*

The boy no longer has any need of blood or bone, muscle or gut. He dissolves his body, turning solid into liquid, beginning from within and rinsing it all out, until it gushes from every orifice he can find. He is a shadow that passes from man to man, and no one is complete until he has cast him.

*

He is hoisted out of the tub, flung onto the wringer, and thoroughly squeezed dry; then two washerwomen take him by the arms and legs, stretch him between them, and hang him out with the rest of the laundry. “I reckon it should fit her now,” he hears the larger woman say as they walk away from the line.

*

In the evening […] Sola G— comes and fetches Máni Steinn from the washing line. She takes him home and puts him on. (68–69)

Sjón’s account of Máni’s illness details the ways in which the boy experiences the dissolution of his own body as it becomes the malleable substance between the hands of others, a wearable garment that no longer belongs to him. This disintegration of the body punctuates the ‘disharmony, disequilibrium, dis-ability and dis-ease’ (Toombs 1992, 96) that characterize the illness experience and fundamentally transform how the body is lived in the world.

Curiously, Máni’s bout of influenza—from which he, luckily, recovers—is not the only instance of bodily transience in the novel. As the novel leaps forward to 1929, a decade after Máni is caught having sex with a Danish sailor and sent to London, M. Peter Carlson returns to Iceland as an assistant and interpreter for experimental filmmakers. Returning to his origins in the leper hospital where his mother died, Máni, the boy who never was, disappears for good:

Glancing at his hands, he discovers that he can see right through them. He gropes for his body and finds that he is clutching at thin air. He can’t feel a thing apart from the wingbeats where his heart used to be. (141)

Metamorphosed into a butterfly, Máni’s trace is witnessed only by a passing leper, Sigurður Ásgrímsson, grandfather of Steinólfur Sævar, who will die of AIDS towards the end of the century and will be immortalized in literature by his nephew, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón.

Máni—the bo(d)y who never was—is a manifest symbol of the body’s disruption in illness whose presence wanes and fades in the midst of historic and contemporary disease.

[1] See Gottfredsson (2008) and ‘100 years’ (2018). The arrival of the Spanish flu to Iceland aboard a passenger ferry also reminds contemporary readers of the floating disaster aboard the Diamond Princess in February 2020.

Works cited

100 Years Since the Spanish Flu Spread to Iceland: Left a Lasting Mark on an Emerging Nation.’ Iceland Magazine. October 19, 2018. [accessed July 28, 2021].

Carel, Havi (2018). Illness: The Cry of the Flesh. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Carel, Havi, Ian James Kidd, and Richard Pettigrew (2016). ‘Illness as transformative experience.’ The Lancet 388(10050): 1152–53.

Gottfredsson, Magnus (2008). ‘The Spanish Flu in Iceland 1918: Lessons in Medicine and History.’ Laeknabladid 94(11): 737–745.

Toombs, S. Kay (1992). The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Sjón (2013/2017). Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. Trans. Victoria Cribb. London: Sceptre.


Note

Some elements of this text will appear as a book review in Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 11.2 (2021).

Cover image: Camille Pissarro, The Washerwomen, Éragny, 1895. Image in public domain.

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