Translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

There is no more unthankful a subject, nor unsympathetic a character than neo-nazism and the leader of an Icelandic neo-nazi cell in the 1950s/early 1960s. Yet when Sjón witnessed Neo-Nazis marching through the centre of Reykjavik a few years ago, he decided that the time had come to stop satirising them (as he had previously, and to answer a serious question in all earnestness: after everything that had gone before, what makes someone turn in that direction?

However, how do you persuade readers to read a novel about such an unpleasant subject? By creating a mystery: killing off your young Neo-Nazi in the opening chapter in suspicious circumstances and not answering the hows and whys until much later. It will also engender a little sympathy for the protagonist (because who deserves to die at 24?) This opening scene also provides the moment of highest drama, because in comparison the rest of the novel is remarkably restrained. It is an attempt to show how unspecial people of this ilk are.

We must start with what we have in common with these people … we can at least show them for what they are, that we know they come from childhoods fundamentally similar to our own, that they had been nudged in a different direction by individuals and events at the beginning of their journeys, that they could so easily have become something else – that a Neo-Nazi is no more special than that. (Sjón, Afterword of Red Milk)

The key word is nudged for there are no Neo-Nazis in Gunnar Kampen’s immediate family, His parents, particularly his Norwegian father, were terrified of Hitler, who had installed a puppet leader in Norway. The remote side of his family, those who stayed in Norway, visited only rarely, and then seemingly only on sufferance. It later becomes clear that they were Nazi sympathisers (maybe even collaborators). Still there is no overt brain-washing of the child. Seeds are sown, however, and when the child becomes a teenager wanting to rebel against everything his parents stand for, there’s a path to follow that will do exactly that …

None of this is overtly stated in Sjón’s episodic narrative, observed in 3rd person, or through letters, and newspaper articles, charting the rise of Gunnar Kampen to leader of the Icelandic Neo-Nazis, and his early death in a train carriage in Cheltenham Spa (He was on his way to sign the very real Cotswold Declaration of the World Union of National Socialists.) There are many clues as to why he followed this path but Sjón does not flag them, leaving readers free to interpret for themselves. I found this both a strength and a weakness of the novel: a strength in that the distance between me and the protagonist, necessary for continued reading, was preserved, particularly when some of his more distasteful actions come to light (such as drawing up a list of those of be killed, when his party, the fictional Sovereign Power Movement, comes to power – their Jewishness established purely on the basis of their surname); a weakness in that, not being au-fait with neo-Nazi history, some (ok, most) of the actual historical references flew right by me. Sjón deliberately eschewed explanation to keep the novel tight and slim (120 pages). He also refused to weave in Nordic Saga, wanting to avoid clichée and the pathos and victimhood it brings to the Nazi narrative.

In keeping the novel spare and grounded, the focus remains on the boy and the seemingly insignificant events that made the man. It could happen to anyone. “You can’t spot a Neo-Nazi in childhood”, said Sjón, at last year’s Hay Festival*. “But you can be an example of other routes in life.”

• Event available on the Hay Player (Subscription required to access.)

I read Red Milk for NordicFINDS (Iceland Week)