Iceland’s Epic Prankster

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Epics, maybe not, since none are long enough to merit that distinction, but taken together, these three novels (From the Mouth of the Whale, The Blue Fox, and The Whispering Muse) read like one endless saga of relentless winter, unforgiving darkness, isolation, and transmogrification.  Not exactly promotion for tourism in the country, yet reading Sjón’s wild narratives will provide stay-at-home delights for the timid, less fearsome travelers.  So let’s commend Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s decision to publish these three novels simultaneously in Victoria Cribb’s glowing translations.

From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) is the longest but still a quick read, focusing on the life of Jónas Pálmason, mostly during the 1630s.  He’s an autodidact, a healer, and a wander, given to whopping stories—often bawdy revisions of the tales we already know.  Thus, there’s the Old Testament Adam, who is described as thirty yards tall and whose constant companion is a dog.  A dog you say?  I don’t remember any dog in the Bible and (I assume) neither do you.  That dog gives Adam a couple of insights into what his life is lacking—especially after Adam’s first ejaculation and, fortunately, the Creator’s abhorrence that this man “should be filled with lust for his own shadow.” Ergo, Adam gets his wife.

But I digress, and so does Sjón and his own creation, Jónas Pálmason.  This gentle man wanders the earth, often fighting good with evil, eventually earning the distinction “Jónas, the Learned.”  It might be argued that he’s trying to avoid Iceland’s harsh winters (“Iceland is no paradise in winter: on the contrary, it is hell.”)  He’s also fighting the backwardness of his people who on one occasion accuse him of being a sorcerer, in spite of his devout Catholicism.  And he’s at odds with his own people about the whalers from other countries whose ships often surround the island, plundering the giant leviathans that ought to be the property of Icelanders.  Fortunately, Jónas—in spite of all the difficulties he encounters—lives to a ripe old age and secretly fathers a son who will carry on his erudition and his outspokenness.

The Blue Fox (2004) begins with the account of a hunter in the snowy wild, tracking a rare blue fox sometime in the 1890s.  The hunter, we soon learn, is the not very pious minister, Rev. Baldur, who will shortly be get trapped in an avalanche.  Baldur’s sequence will end just as he pulls the trigger.  The novella then segues to the account of a young woman, brain damaged, who was discovered in the hull of a ship that floundered on the rocks near the Icelandic coast.  Chained to one of the ship’s timbers, she was common fodder for the crew, and treated as an animal, until she was rescued by one of the island’s more humane elders.  Thereafter, the two threads (fox hunt and violence against women) are connected and roles become reversed and evil is unmasked, as ice and avalanche cover not simply the island’s faithful but cleanse those who have suffered the most abuse.  The story is an often startling parable of appearance versus reality, set to the chilly background of the country’s frigid environs.

My favorite of Sjón’s three novels is The Whispering Muse (2005), with the most contemporary setting—after World War II.  The protagonist is once again, an ageing male: “Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelandic pensioner and recently widowed.”  He’s fixated on “fish and culture,” convinced that Iceland’s uniqueness is due to its watery surroundings, especially its “staple diet of seafood.” More precisely, “In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish.  And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms.” To wit, “Life originates in the ocean and the ocean is the source from which life must seek its nourishment…  The sea is the mainspring of Nordic nations.”

No surprise then, because is a widower, that Valdimar Haraldsson believes it is time to take a voyage.  He’s been publishing Fisk og Kultur for eight whole years.  Better late than ever he concludes, when he’s invited to join a ship on its maiden voyage carrying newspaper from Norway to Turkey.  Like other voyagers, Valdimar begins thinking of celebrated sea-farers, especially because one of the ship’s mates, named Caeneus, enjoys entertaining the ship’s guests with epic events from the past.

From here on out, Sjón’s narrative becomes utterly enchanting, as Caeneus’ story of Jason and the Argonauts merges with the contemporaneous story of Valdimar Haraldsson’s adventures on the merchant ship MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.  Yes, Jung’s archetypes creep into the story of utter hilarity, as transformations take place, and Valdimar returns to Iceland with his virility reinvigorated by a magical object from the past (which he steals) that gives new meaning to the raunchy expression, “He’s got a woody.”

Great fun—all three of these amazing stories.  And what an incredible imagination Sjón demonstrates in scene after scene in these Icelandic mini-sagas.

Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale, 240 pp., $15

The Blue Fox, 128 pp., $15

The Whispering Muse, 160 pp., $22

Trans. by Victoria Cribb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 03, 2015
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Fulton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future