Cover Image: Red Milk

Red Milk

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Member Reviews

Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This slim book, written in short chapters, tells the life of Gunnar Kampen, who died in England in 1962 and was the founder of a Neo-Nazi party in Iceland. The book, told in letters and imagined scenes, shows Gunnar as an innocent young boy, through his radicalization, until the day of his death. The book avoids any huge realization scenes or confrontations. It becomes chilling as we follow this growing fascist as he’s with his family and dealing with everyday concerns, including his failing health, as he spews hate so causally.
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This short but compelling novel opens with a dead man being discovered on a train at Cheltenham Spa station in 1962. (The fact that it’s at Cheltenham isn’t particularly relevant but it’s where I live and I couldn’t help wanting to mention it!) He has an Icelandic passport with a small scrap of paper with a swastika on it. So we know right from the start how it’s going to end, but how we get there is told from a variety of different perspectives. The story is based on the life of one of the leaders of a small neo-Nazi group in Iceland in the 1950s. Not much is known about this group but they had links with other far-right movements in Europe and the US. Gunnar Kampen, the ill-fated protagonist of this story, is an ordinary man, who grew up in an anti-fascist household but finds himself drawn to Fascism and far-right ideas. What shapes such a man is explored throughout the novel but no conclusions are drawn and the reader is left to form their own about how this happens. The writing is measured and unemotional and as a result quite chilling. It’s not an attempt to understand Gunnar Kampen but to examine the sociological forces that acted upon him. An intriguing and original read, which I very much enjoyed.
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Not sure why they didn't translate the original title literally (Korngult hár, grá augu means 'Corn-gold Hair, Grey Eyes'), but I guess Red Milk is more evocative. Anyway, this glimpse into the life of Gunnar Kampen, founder of Iceland's New-Nazi movement, is a study in the banality of evil. It's a quick and evocative read, showing how ordinary individuals can be sucked into nationalistic movements quite easily.
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A fictional biography of the founder of the neo-Nazi movement in Iceland, from his childhood during World War II through his political evolution the 1950s until his death in 1962. Sjon's terse prose and alternation between 'objective,' almost camera-like, focus on the surrounding circumstances, family members, and friends (first and third part) with his character's inner thoughts as revealed in his letters (the epistolary 2nd part) most effectively serve to get into the mindset of someone who embraced monstrous political views despite the normality of life in a postwar country such as Iceland. The novel is mercifully short as it is difficult to keep company with a character who unquestionably follows the dictum of hatred and intolerance, and witnessing his gradual development into a neo-Nazi advocate (I suspect it must have been difficult for a writer as well). Yet, it's important to read it, especially in the times of the recent rise and open display of similar political convictions in a number of places around the world. As portrayed in the main character in Sjon's novel, there is nothing special or unique about such an individual, he is quite ordinary and average... someone who can be our neighbor or next in line at the supermarket register... and that is what makes it most chilling. It's a compelling semi-fictional portrayal of what Hannah Arendt famously called "the banality of evil."

My thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an ARC via NetGalley.
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Red Milk is based on the life of one of the leaders of a small neo-Nazi group that was formed in Iceland in the 1950s.  The book divides the main character’s life into three sections: Gunnar’s childhood, his young adulthood as he becomes enthralled with the tenets of Fascism and founds his own anti-Semitic political group in Reykjavik and the final section as Gunnar sets out on one last clandestine activity. 

Gunnar grows up in an average middle-class family home surrounded by adults who have participated in and reacted to WWII and its aftermath in various ways.  His relationships with his siblings are not out of the ordinary (and his relationship with his cognitively disabled brother is loving and supportive), nor is his schooling.  As the author says in his afterword: “…in order to begin to understand what makes it possible for people to heed the call of Nazism in all its guises, old and new…….we must start with what we have in common with such people…..we can at least show them that we see them for what they are, that we know they come from childhoods fundamentally similar to our own…that they could have so easily have become something else.”  

Naively I had hoped Sjon might have an answer, but I was left with the question I had before I read this novel: What is it about fascism that has made it so attractive to so many people for so many generations?  Nevertheless I recommend this short, intense, well-written novel.

Thank you to the publisher for the opportunity to review the ARC via Netgalley.
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A dead Nazi is easier to deal with than a living one - this was Sjón's thought process when he decided to let his protaginist die right at the beginning of his new novel: Readers should be open to dive into the socialisation and mind of an Icelandic Nazi, knowing that he will fail. Cancer-stricken Gunnar Pálsson Kampen dies in a train compartment at 24 years old, while trying to travel to the first meeting of an international Nazi network. When the police arrives to record the incident, "silence reigns in his chest - but his brain is still working." His story is thus told chronologically in narrative flashbacks and letters, chronicling how the young man who grew up in Reykjavik during WW II came into contact with fascist ideas and became one of the leaders of the Icelandic Nazi organisation in the late 50's and 60's.

Sjón refers to many actual events and features real historic figures like author Savitri Devi (if you look at the reviews for her books here on GR, you will be shocked by the amount of praise this outright Hitler-fan receives on this platform), founder of the American Nazi Party George Lincoln Rockwell, infamous British Neo-Nazi Colin Jordan, and Swedish Neo-Nazi Göran Assar Oredsson. Iceland joining the NATO and the discussion concerning an American military base in the country also play a vital role, as in The Atom Station by Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness.

But Sjón also brings in his family history: The author's grandfather had lived in Germany and, back in Iceland, was convicted for treason; in the book, it's Gunnar's Norwegian uncle who goes to jail for this (and another) crime. There are also theories, Sjón says, that his great-grandfather was part of a Nazi group in the Westman Islands, a region that features in "Red Milk". As in CoDex 1962: A Trilogy, Sjón shows that the repercussions of Nazism are still there and affect regular Icelanders like himself and many others. Gunnar, his protagonist, is intentionally crafted as a very average guy, "to the point of banality", as the author states (thus referring to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil). This is also why in this novel, Sjón does not employ Icelandic mythology or surrealist elements (which he usually does): As fascist ideology relies on the perversion of mythologies, Sjón takes any non-realist storytelling away.

As a result, this is a very unusual book for Sjón when you look at the storytelling, but it's also a logical step in his artistic progress when you consider how he dealt with the topic in CoDex 1962: A Trilogy and The Whispering Muse. I can't wait to read his next book.

You can listen to me chat with Sjón about "CoDex" and (a little) about "Red Milk" here.
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This is a very short story of an Icelandic Neo-Nazi in 1960s. Through excerpts and mails, we look into the mind of this sick guy and he managed convinced himself that he was the doing the most important thing in the world. being based on a true story, this bite size biography gives me chills. 

It starts when he was found dead on a train in England with a destination in mind and marked on a map with a swastika. Then we peer into his childhood. Growing up in a house where everyone was against Nazism, it was surprising to see how this guy ended up who he was.
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It seems that all of the Icelandic fiction I’ve read up till now was genre variety, from mystery thrillers to ghost stories, featuring primarily contemporary settings (outside of flashbacks).  It was time for proper literature, a work of historical fiction no less. And so…Red Milk. Infinitely more ominous than all other milks out there. The most nourishing of substances tinged with blood.
     This novel, despite its slender size, is a sledgehammer albeit a cleverly subtle one. It speaks more to the banality of evil than its grandiosity. At a very basic level it’s a portrait of a young man as a neo nazi. Set during and in the decades following WWII, it’s a story of a young man of Icelandic and Norwegian descent growing up and coming to age admiring fascism more and more and then getting directly involved with it, setting up a local neo nazi party. The narrative comprises biographical sketches, epistolary entries of various correspondences and more until slowly the grand design of a person emerges. It’s a really ingenious approach to something that might have been easily done in a much cruder fashion with much broader brushstrokes. The author was inspired by a real life person and real life events in creating this book and thus brought to it all the complexity of real life and every effort to understand how a person like that might come to be. Is it a seemingly innocuous conglomeration of random occurrences, such as a quisling for an uncle or a neighbor’s language club or it is more than that? What does it take for someone to develop such a dangerous and horrible system of beliefs? What a resonant question to contemplate in this day and age of the ever increasing radical ideologies.
     At any rate, from both psychological and pure readership perspective, this made for a fascinating read. All the more so because Iceland is a country just far enough off the sidelines to have been only distantly affected by WWII, comparable to the rest of Europe, but apparently it hasn’t emerged completely unscathed either, for an event of such grand evil it’s only fitting to ripple so far and so wide and so malevolently. So a historical perspective…also covered.
   All in all, a great find and an excellent introduction to a new author for me. I’d certainly read more of his work, given a chance. Very good read indeed. Recommended. Thanks Netgalley.
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