Iceland’s Epic Prankster
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.