‘Spanish’ Flu and the Limits of Community: Sjón’s Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Moonstone weaves together stories of the ‘Spanish Flu’ or Great Influenza (H1N1) pandemic of 1918 with the birth of a sovereign Iceland and the cultural changes wrought by the advent of the cinema.

In the background, a volcanic eruption has created a miniature climate crisis, with Iceland experiencing the coldest, wettest winter on record and World War 1 ends: ‘In Reykjavík the cessation of hostilities was greeted with the same indifference as the cessation of the Katla eruption a few days before….There has been no cease-fire in the influenza’s war on the inhabitants of the town.’ Rereading Moonstone in the last few days, there were moments of eerie recognition. In a scene that recalls drone footage of empty city centres under lockdown, Máni Steinn (the ‘moonstone’ of the title) goes: ‘on the prowl in the deserted centre of town. He’d had no inkling that when the pestilence took hold Reykjavík would empty and convey the impression that nothing was happening at all; that the town would become an abandoned set.’ In the face of an invisible enemy, staying home and trying to stay safe is a default human reaction.

So of course is denial and a tendency to put self interest ahead of public health. As word of the infection originally spreads: ‘articles appear in the Reykjavík papers with statements by respected Danish physicians claiming 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.’

I read that passage, originally published in 2013, on a day when an article in The Irish Times debated ‘the social and economic effects of prolonging the lockdown’ in response to Covid-19 and as other countries, notably Britain and the US, count the escalating casualties of putting those effects ahead of preventive measures. The fact that sentences from the novel could come from the newspapers of many countries in the Spring of 2020 does not mean that literature in general or Sjón in particular has the power of prophecy. Imaginative insight into the past does however have the ability to enable understanding of the present and could, if we paid attention, help prepare us for future eventualities. Anne Enright has described the novel as cutting a ’transverse slice through the strata of Icelandic society and events’ at a very precise moment. Revisiting this one particular place in a moment of crisis reveals very long term structures of thought and feeling which condition how societies and individuals respond or fail to respond to disease, change and each other.

We think of globalisation as a modern phenomenon, but the long history of global pandemics reminds us that we have always been interconnected. It was sometimes easier to track the geographical pathways of transmission before the advent of frequent international flights, however. The arrival of ‘Spanish’ flu in Iceland can be traced to the arrival of 3 ships on October 19th 1918, when the Willemoes from the US and the Botnia from Denmark docked in Reykjavík, while a British trawler arrived in a little fishing village called Hafnarfjörður. Patient Zero was believed to be a young woman on the Botnia on a visit to her student brother, and the disease rapidly spread through his classmates and on through the city. Contagious diseases know no borders, though they may be experienced or named as foreign, whether Spanish or Chinese: in Spain the 1918 pandemic was sometimes called the ‘French Flu.’

Just as it was about to achieve its ambition for increased national independence, Iceland was reminded that even islands are part of an intricate web of shipping lanes, trade and interpersonal relationships. By November 25th, ‘There are ten thousand stricken townspeople, ten doctors, three overflowing hospitals, and one pharmacy, which is closed due to the illness of the pharmacist and all his dispensers.’

The central character in Moonstone may be a product of the freezing cold streets of Reykjavik, but through the medium of the only art form available to him he is also a citizen of the world: ‘the boy lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind. Sleeping, he dreams variations on the films, in which the web of incident is interwoven with strands from his own life.’ The novel is on one level a parable of a fantastical community, initially created by extreme circumstances and strange dreams, eventually spooled out across the intervening century. The epidemic transforms the relationships of the citizens of Reykjavik. The marginalised adolescent sex worker Máni becomes, by virtue of the immunity with which he emerges from his own bout of influenza, a vital member of his community, working for the emergency hospital and ambulance service. When so many of the men who can drive become ill, Sola G, whose gender previously excluded her, ends up driving an ambulance. Above all, the old women whom no one took too seriously, ‘the old biddies’, becomes the mainstay of the city: ‘The streets yawn, empty of people, except for glimpses here and there of the odd shadowy figure out and about. These are the old women, bundled up in black clothes, wearing shawl upon shawl to keep out the chill.’

The age profile of the victims of H1N1 has been the subject of considerable scientific scrutiny. The pandemic saw high mortality rates among young people, with lower death rates among the elderly ‘taken to imply that older people had acquired protective immunity from an earlier influenza outbreak with similar antigenic properties’ .

Moonstone expresses this more poetically: ‘They have given room to so many ailments in their day that the scourge now making a meal of their descendants can find no morsel worth having on their worn-out old bones.’ In that particular pandemic, the elderly frequently took up the role of caring for the young and eking out a shared subsistence. In the bitter cold winter of 1918 as the novel describes it:

‘If word gets around that someone has a drop of lamp oil, cough syrup, or vinegar to spare; if it is rumoured that oats, rice, soap, or dried stewing vegetables will be sold at the Thomsen’s Magasin warehouse door for half an hour at eleven; if news spreads that a packet of salt fish failed to make it onto the ship or a sack containing a handful of sprouting potatoes has been left sitting around open and unattended, an old biddy will layer up in skirt upon skirt and two pairs of mittens, and hobble off into town for the sake of posterity.’


The survival of the next generation depends on their indomitable scavenging. Máni is nursed back to health by Karmilla Maríusdóttir, his great-grand aunt who reared him when no other family were found willing to take in the orphan boy. The socialist doctor who has given the old lady and Máni free lodging in his attic out of pity and principle, becomes the object of her charity as his family succumb to the pandemic: ‘since the young mistress and her elder daughter fell ill, the old lady has been popping downstairs to cook for the landlord and his younger children’.

The historian of epidemics Sam Cohn has argued that alongside H1N1 another epidemic emerged, an epidemic of compassion. Sjón’s novel explores what happens when compassion becomes the salvation and last resort of a whole society. It also explores what happens when the emergency is over and the marginalised and despised are no longer necessary. Margaret Atwood pithily rejected a journalist’s description of the Covid 19 crisis as dystopian: ‘people may be making arrangements that aren’t too pleasant, but it’s not a deliberate totalitarianism’.

Moonstone explores the way in which the desolation of Reykjavik in 1918 produced a moment of utopian solidarity. The normality restored towards the end of the novel is cruel, forgetful, much more dystopian by Atwood’s definition. When Máni’s sexual orientation is dramatically discovered by the authorities, he is condemned for ‘unnatural foreign practices’ described as a form of ‘infection’ themselves. One of his former clients suggests ‘—Put him out of his misery . . . Easy enough to hide his body . . . the mortuaries are full of nameless wretches.’ Instead Máni is exiled almost as soon as his service to the city is no longer needed. The old lady who reared him and nursed him through the influenza is left alone, though Máni, reinvented as a successful man who works in his beloved film industry, returns at the novel’s end to visit her grave. It is a salutary ending, which asks us will we too be prepared to close the shutters of normality’ against the insight the pandemic has given us into the living conditions in overlooked institutions, crowded multigenerational housing, direct provision centres, ill maintained halting sites. Will we too cease to recognise that poorly paid precarious care workers and shop assistants are ‘essential’ to our society as soon as the crisis is over?

Sjón has commented that ‘the flu can be seen as a metaphor for the impossibility of isolating oneself and controlling one’s own narrative. The cinema is another metaphor for the same thing but on a social level. And the fact that Máni Steinn is trying to find ways to live with his queerness shows how change happens in the life of individuals, even though it would take sixty years before anyone came out as openly gay in Iceland. The history of an island is always a history of visits, invasions, trappings, and expulsions’.

Moonstone is dedicated to the victim of a more recent pandemic. In another interview, Sjón reflected that ‘the emotional and moral urgency behind telling the tale of Máni Steinn comes from the novel being dedicated to the memory of my uncle Bósi who died of AIDS in 1993.’ At its conclusion Moonstone moves out of history into myth, linking the Spanish Flu and AIDS to the primal exclusion of lepers in Western society, and then, through the flickering image of a cinematic black butterfly, opening out into the future where Bósi will live and the book be written.

Moonstone celebrates the human capacity to work together to overcome the epoch defining challenges posed by uncontrollable infectious diseases, but also by prejudice and ignorance. Through the flickering illumination of art and imagination, it shows us that we are organisms, vulnerable bodies at the mercy of enemies we cannot see or anticipate, dependent on reciprocity and co-operation for survival. The novel asks hard questions about why historically we have found it so hard to remember this basic lesson of biology.


Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was [ Buy on hive.co.uk ]

Video on Iceland in 1918 on Youtube

Podcast of Sjón reading from Moonstone with an introduction by Anne Enright. Recorded at ‘Celebrating a Century of Icelandic Sovereignty: History, culture and Irish connections‘ at the Royal Irish Academy in December 2018.

Photo Image: “View of Reykjavik, Iceland”, Berit Wallenberg, Swedish National Heritage Board, Flickr Commons.