May 2013

Sessily Watt

fiction

The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón

Though Sjón's work has been translated into a smorgasbord of other languages, these three -- The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From the Mouth of the Whale -- have not yet found a substantial audience in the United States. They have been given distinctive, matching covers for their major publisher release: a starry background with Sjón's name spelled out in folded white strips, the title of each novel in smaller block letters, and, superimposed over the top, a colored etching that reflects the content -- a blue fox, in the case of the first novel. The attention to detail on the cover reflects the careful attention in the texts. These are works of mystery and wonder -- eye-catching, bright, and full of dark spaces. Though questions and the search for knowledge are integral to all three novels, answers are infrequent. Instead, Sjón layers myth and knowledge one upon the other, creating intricate constructions of two hundred fifty pages or fewer.

By original publication date, The Blue Fox comes first. Set in 1883, The Blue Fox is concerned with a small Icelandic community. In particular, the novel explores the relationships between a naturalist, a priest who is also a hunter, and a young woman with Down syndrome. It opens with the priest/hunter tracking a blue fox through a mountainous terrain. In brief paragraphs, centered in the page and surrounded by white space above and below, the fox feints, the hunter tracks, and the snow falls around them both. The question of center is important to the novel: the opening hunt is centered on the page and the hunt itself surrounds a section that details the characters' relationships. Abba, the young woman with Down syndrome, is the central mystery of the novel. Where did she come from? What is in the package she carried with her and how did she get it? In the end, these mysteries are less important for their answers and more for how they drive the naturalist and the priest into avoidance and eventually a confrontation in the hunt for the blue fox.

The Whispering Muse comes second. This is the story of Valdimar Haraldsson's trip on a merchant ship in 1949. Haraldsson is a member of that peculiar tribe: the obsessed and thereby myopic character who, when narrating the story, cannot be trusted to explain or understand what is happening around them. Haraldsson's obsession, made clear from the first sentence, is with the idea that the seafood-based diet of the Nordic countries is what makes them superior to other countries and cultures -- an idea with Aryan overtones that aren't made explicit. Haraldsson's obsession is incidental to the energy of the story, which actually comes from a re-telling of Jason and the Argonauts, given by the second mate, Caeneus, who was one of the Argonauts. This remarkable fact goes unnoticed by Haraldsson, even as he recounts Caeneus's story to the reader, creating a narrative nested within a narrative, the whole set within a merchant ship docked at a paper mill. There are other, more mundane mysteries as well, such as the conspiracy Haraldsson suspects involves the ship's purser, who is the man responsible for purchasing supplies. As with The Blue Fox, though, Sjón plays with these mysteries not because their answers are revelatory, but because the questions are.

From the Mouth of the Whale is the last of the three and is also the longest at a little over two hundred pages. The focus of the novel is Jónas the Learned, a seventeenth-century man exiled to an island off the coast of Iceland. As a boy, Jónas learned about the world around him from the various books his father was compiling. He became a healer through the knowledge in those books and traded his poultices and potions for the bodies of dead ravens, in which he hoped to one day find a bezoar -- a mythical stone that could heal all. Eventually, his knowledge and actions ran afoul of the men in power and he was punished and exiled. The stories of his past, which include zombie-like ghosts and men gone mad, intermix with the placid days of his punishment. His story of learning, ignorance, and power is interspersed with short entries that define plants, stones, animals, and insects according to Jónas's seventeenth-century understanding, as well as his direct observations of the world around him, such as the sandpiper he speaks to in the early pages. The last layer of knowledge and mystery that Sjón adds to the mix are the biblical references, including the whale of the title, a rib taken from Jónas's body to represent his wife, and a man in a boat who shows Jónas all the animals of the sea and land in pairs. Though all three novels are interested in stories told and questions asked, From the Mouth of the Whale is most intimately engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. It is Jónas's questioning that causes him the most trouble, even as it makes the world beautiful and mysterious to him and, through Sjón's imagery, to the reader as well.

All three novels are gorgeous in imagery and at the line level. The syntax in The Blue Fox is often simple, but it is a simplicity born of the careful selection of words to avoid redundancy. On the other hand, both The Whispering Muse and From the Mouth of the Whale feature first-person narrators who ramble at times, their sentences branching this way and that, attempting to capture understanding beyond their grasp. The world they find, and share with the reader, is magnificent in its mystery. This is a world most readers will recognize, and yet, through the questions Sjón asks through plot and observation, it is a world that has been made anew.

The Blue Fox by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374114459
128 pages

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374289072
160 pages

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9789-0374159030
240 pages