Works in translation occupy a strange, pleasing limbo for well-rounded readers. Typically they enter public notice after the first cycle of literary prizes abroad has rained down on the head of the author, but before foregone conclusions and assumptions precede the books themselves. Each novel appears like an iceberg ahead, full of submerged mystery. What type of work is this, and what does it have to tell about its author and his culture?
The first of the Icelandic Sjón’s novels chronologically, 2004’s The Blue Fox (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) , is the slightest, but like the animal of the title, it is more than it seems: part historical novella, part hallucinatory fable. Set in 1883, it begins with a hunted vixen in the snow, tracked by an implacable man. His dogged pursuit imbues him with a deep malevolence as he stalks his quarry against a stark natural backdrop of sky, stars, snow and ice. The man is Reverend Baldur. When the scene changes abruptly, the ‘eejit’ manservant of Baldur has arrived at Fridrik’s house to retrieve the corpse of another half-witted servant, Abba. The intertwined history of Baldur, Fridrik and Abba is revealed slowly in flashbacks that build into the force of a parable.
Baldur’s pursuit of the vixen in the novel’s terse opening reveals his true, implacable and violent, and the climax of the story comes in the midst of another hunting expedition. In the letter sending Baldur instructions for Abba’s burial, Fridrik mentions that another blue fox has been sighted. The season is wrong for going up the mountain, but Fridrik knows his mark, and again the reader meets Baldur on the prowl. His rifle shot kills his prey but brings down an avalanche over them both, and the narrative slides into a dreamlike state. Buried in a snow cave, half-conscious, the corpse of the vixen springs to life before Baldur:
At that point the vixen spat out the first piece of shot. It pinged against the priest’s cheek. He moaned aloud and swore. But the vixen ignored him. She continued to preen herself until she had cleaned from her flesh all that the rifle had delivered to her: bloodstained lead ricocheted around the fissure, and great sparks flew from the rock where the shot struck.
The vixen then speaks with Baldur, debating with him until Baldur skins her pelt and steps bodily inside of it. The skinning is visceral in the most literal sense: Sjón’s prose is strong enough to conjure up a physical reaction against the viscera on the page. Clothed in the vixen’s fur, Baldur scrabbles out of the snow cave and emerging as a fox-like creature in a lush green field. What of this transformation is hallucination and what is allegory? All of this takes place on a mythic level, a fable that surges with electricity when the narrative steps out of the realm of the real and into the fantastical. Of the three novels, Sjón’s collaborations with Björk are closest in spirit to his first, which shares an almost rhythmic connection to the natural world.
The element of myth, of storytelling with an epic bent, proves to be the hallmark of Sjón, who seems driven to make new myths or invigorate old ones. He also delves repeatedly into the tension between man and nature, contrasting rapacious, worldly, morally bankrupt characters with pure, knowledge-driven characters whose main feature is an interest in and sympathy for the natural world. Enter his second novel, 2008’s From the Mouth of the Whale. It begins with a preface showing Lucifer’s first introduction to God’s new ‘pet’, man. Putrid, egotistical, Lucifer rejects his existence in disgust, issuing the words “But my parting gift to you, Man, is this vision of yourself.” And so we meet Jónas the Learned, standing on a barren rock island and surveying himself as but one of many living creatures, a cousin to the purple sandpiper. Already the writing style is wildly different from the clipped sentences and spacious prose of the previous novel, following the train of thought of its protagonist. Jónas is an exiled naturalist in 1635 Iceland, a man castigated for practicing the art of science and shunned by the church and political leaders of the day, and his mind runs riot over the world, taking in every plant and medicinal tool and bird and fish of his environs, jumping from observations compiled in his encyclopedia of natural history to recollections of the decisions that led him to exile and caused the death of his young children and wife. Again Sjón builds past events into the narrative piecemeal using flashbacks, and again he writes baroque, attentive descriptions of the natural world: the stars above, the moss below, everything is given equal weight.
Between these loving tributes—and Jónas’ fault in his venal world has been caring too much for this type of knowledge and too little for self-protection—is a depiction of a world with no space for them. Jónas is trapped by small minds, persecuted after performing an exorcism on the belief that he is a dark sorcerer and yanked back from the only refuge he finds at a university in Copenhagen, where he delivers the verdict that unicorn horns are merely narwhal tusks and sets to work cataloging specimens. Jónas is working at the time when alchemy has not yet quite become science, and when scientific knowledge was muddied with religious and spiritual beliefs; he can appear ridiculous, only to seem pathetic and then noble in turn. Mostly, he is a man of conscience in a society without any, and one of the novel’s strongest, most unexpected passages comes with the story of a fleet of Basque whaling ships that docked in 1614, traded with the locals, and was beset by them before sailing, butchered mercilessly as heathen Catholics and ransacked for their spoils. As with Baldur’s skinning of the vixen, the physical details of the slaughter are described in disturbing, vivid language that sears the images on the page. Here must be what Lucifer turns against, and what Baldur is punished for in the The Blue Fox. Set opposite are the sandpipers, which return to nearly close out the novel:
Twit-tweet…nature is whole in its harmony…twit-tweet...as can clearly be seen if one treads a dance here on the harbor bar…twit-tweet…but it all gets into a tangle if one tries to classify it according to reason…the strings refresh the eyes and mind…it is difficult to grasp them…twit-tweet… welcome back from the sea, brother sandpiper...twit-tweet...it is high tide on the island of Patmos...the strings run through me...twit-tweet...I thrum them...alas, now I miss my picture books...twit-tweet...geyser birds…
Except that they don’t close it out—five more pages follow, in a coda entitled “The Tail or Leftovers.” First revealing Jónas’ pardon and calm death in old age, it shuttles to his awakening in the mouth of a whale and deliverance onto dry land after days of travel in the ocean. “The great fish slams its jaw shut, gives a splash of its tail, and disappears once more into the deep.”
Myth features even more strongly in the final novel, The Whispering Muse, simultaneously the most contemporary and the most ancient of the trio. Valdimar Haraldsson is a pedant, and his fussy personality infuses Sjon’s sentences with a priggish absurdity. Editor of a journal devoted to “the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race,” he is invited as an honorary guest on a new merchant vessel by a shipping magnate whose deceased son was an admirer and, apparently, avid pescetarian. On board with him is the captain; the purser and his ‘lady friend’; the engineer; and a second mate names Caeneus, a voracious storyteller who is immediately recognizable as one of Jason’s Argonauts. The whispering muse of the title is a relic from the wreck of the Argo, a rotten wooden beam that formed part of the mast. Each night after dinner, Caeneus listens to the wood and regales their small company with tales from his travels; conveniently, no one remarks on the events having taken place in the days of Greek antiquity.
Valdimar alone is immune to the charms of the storytelling, which interfere with his planned lectures on fish and racial superiority. Even the suppers they eat would be bereft of the sea’s bounty if not for his efforts on a fishing line from the deck. Again Sjón jumps between settings and eras in his narration, inter-mixing the story of the Argonauts bedding the local women on Lemnos with the goings on aboard the ship, still docked in port and receiving its cargo of wood pulp. Haraldsson appears to be largely unaffected by his change in surroundings, the first voyage he has ever undertaken (even if it never quite leaves Scandinavia), and after witnessing a horrific industrial accident involving one of the workers at the pulp mill, he announces that he won’t be continuing as a passenger when the ship sets sail at last. On retiring for his last night, his spacious cabin—previously described at great length with glowing encomiums at every opportunity—has been altered beyond recognition and his luggage is missing.
It was a mystery to me how the purser and his lady friend had achieved this transformation without my being aware: the walls were lined with shelves, and through the wire netting—designed to keep everything in its place in heavy seas—I saw piles of tins, jars of pickled vegetables, and packets of flour, sugar, and spice. There were sacks of potatoes in one corner, and a stack of boxes of wine and fruit juice by the door, all lashed down with leather straps. In the middle of the cabin stood a huge refrigerator. ... I decided to investigate the matter a little further and opened the door to the bathroom. … I was standing in an armory.
This transformation, like the odd tableau of the ship’s crew in the boiler room that Haraldsson finds next and indeed all of Caeneus’s recitations, is made more bizarre by how unremarked upon it is, by how the eerie shift in reality is accepted. The reader can only laugh at the picture presented by the next section, which includes the boast “One sign that I am an altered man is that I have changed the topic of my conversation at Cafe Sommerfugl. I haven’t entirely given up discussing the influence of seafood on the Nordic race but I spend less time discoursing on this and more on the fittings on board the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.” It seems that no aspect of the experience has made any real dent on Haraldsson, until he reveals that he now sees his neighbor Madame Lauritzen, who is sometimes ‘in the mood’ for the bedroom.
I, on the other hand, am always “in the mood,” and this is the most significant change that has taken place in me since the voyage with Captain Alfredson and his crew.
The ‘change’ is due to the fact that, having noticed its physiological impact when on board, he secreted away the splinter of the Argo, denying it to Caeneus and using it for his liaisons: ancient myth as Viagra. There is no clear border in this novel nor in the others that neatly divides the sacred from the profane, the real from the unreal, man from nature. Every state is shown to be porous, and deep transformations come at some point in all of these otherwise quite distinctive works, metamorphoses whose meaning is hard to parse. Perhaps it is best to hark back to the line “but it all gets into a tangle if one tries to classify it according to reason.” It is not reason holding sway here, but magic. Not least of all this is the magic of finding an author with a new voice, variegated and changeable, flexible and probing, curious as to how the past intersects with the present, how the everyday world interacts with the world of imagination and allegory, and most of all receptive to uncanny wonder.
About the Author:
Sjón has won the Nordic Council Literature Prize and his books have been translated into 25 languages. Also a poet and lyricist, he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his work writing music for the film Dancer in the Dark and frequently collaborates with Björk.
About the Translator:
Victoria Cribb is one of Icelandic literature’s best-known translators into English, working with Arnaldur Indriðason and Gyrðir Elíasson, among others. She became interested in Iceland as a teenager and taught herself the language with a 1948 Linguaphone set.
Nora Rawn works in publishing and lives in Brooklyn.