Sjón - Light, humorous, a mix of culture, myth and literature. Man and bird, man with a bird’s heart, bird with a man’s brain, bird with a man’s heart, bird with bird brain. We are alike in most things. And why should we not be?
Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale, Trans. by Victoria Cribb, Telegram Books, 2011.
"Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret and both books and men are burnt.
Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children.
From the Mouth of the Whale is a magical evocation of an enlightened mind and a vanished age."
"Sjón is the trickster that makes the world; and he is achingly brilliant.From the Mouth of the Whale is strange and wonderful, an epic made mad, made extraordinary."—Junot Díaz
"Hallucinatory, lyrical, by turns comic and tragic, this extraordinary novel should make Sjón an international name. His evocation of seventeenth century Iceland through the eyes of a man born before his time has stuck in my mind like nothing else I’ve read in the last year." —Hari Kunzru
"The narrative is kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, comic and poignant by turns. Victoria Cribb’s translation brilliantly captures these multiple changes in tone and scene. From the Mouth of the Whale should open up a world of Icelandic writing, ...a world of nature and of ideas, which stands comparison with the Iceland of the Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness." —Carolyne Larrington
"Quixotic adventures of a 17th-century naturalist and physician banished to a remote northern island make up this antiquated novel by the prolific Icelandic author of The Blue Fox (and Oscar-nominated songwriter, for the film Dancer in the Dark). Having come afoul of the Inquisition for his alchemical and exorcist practices, Jónas the Learned is stranded with his wife, Sigga, on Gullbjörn Island and unravels the dreamlike narrative of his life: having learned to read in the care of his sage grandfather Hákon Thormódsson, as a young man he acquires the art of healing by treating women and gains a reputation that carries him westward along the Snjáfjöll coast. Jonas finds work in towns like Litla-Vík, where harpooning stations are established in the summer of 1613 by Basque whalers, at first welcomed, then reviled. By 1635 Jónas is languishing in his island exile; despite being rescued and delivered to Copenhagen, where the charges against him are dismissed, Jónas is reimprisoned on the island, this time utterly alone. His fate “forever turning with the wheel of fortune,” Jónas is not unhappy living in harmony with all God’s creatures, and indeed this blithe, rhapsodic novel moves backward from the Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible to create a work charged with lyrical energy and metaphysical purpose. Agent: Licht & Burr Literary Agency." - Publishers Weekly
"Part of the pleasure of reading literary fiction in translation is that it enriches our understanding of other cultures.
In his second book to appear in English, From the Mouth of the Whale, the acclaimed Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón transports the reader to a different world and time. The tale of his supremely odd protagonist, who is based on a historical figure, makes for a terrific read.
In 17th-century Iceland, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, a self-taught naturalist, poet and healer, is sentenced to internal exile, on charges of sorcery. Astrology is still used in medicine and talismans are believed to promote healing. It is also the aftermath of the Lutheran Reformation, a transition from Catholicism marred by violence. As Jónas sees out his punishment on a deserted island, he ruminates on his misfortunes. He recalls his childhood, witnessing the secret folk-worship of the Virgin, and, later, describes his downfall as a "Schoolmaster of Necromancy". Sjón's prose is deliberately untamed, reflecting the wanderings of Jónas's mind, a stream of consciousness that is lyrical and hallucinatory.
There is humour in Jónas's recollections, such as his reverence for the dead who "generally possess more fortitude than the living, as is clear by the way they still lie in their grave while man scurries around like a frightened field mouse". In a light-hearted touch, Sjón takes on a minor role as a sailor who rescues Jónas. The clue is in his appearance: bespectacled and clad in a grey-brown homespun coat and hat, his middle finger "sported a silver ring engraved with an inscription".
Subtly, Sjón draws out the contemporary resonances. Jónas's condemnation of the massacre of Basque whalers (based on a real event in 1615) results in his politically-motivated persecution and his banishment for compiling a book chimes with the experience of oppressed writers today: "I felt the heat of the animosity they bear towards me, the vindictive nature that drives a man to destroy the neighbour in a fire as if he were a banned book... For what is the difference? Every book is imbued with the human spirit."
This is an extraordinarily accomplished novel that challenges and informs the reader in equal measure. Victoria Cribb's superb translation conveys the intricacies of Sjón's language, Jonas's strange turns of phrase, and the novel's meandering narrative." - Lucy Popescu
"It is not easy to work out what From the Mouth of the Whale is about at first. It seems to be a book of 17th century Icelandic myths, based on the life of the fictional Jónas Pálmason, “a poet and self-taught healer” who has been exiled to a barren island for his heretical conduct. But who is the author, Sjon and what is he aiming at by creating these imaginary myths? What sort of book is it? What is its purpose?
From Wikipedia I discovered that “Sjon” is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, is a much acclaimed Icelandic poet and writer of children’s books, who wrote songs for Bjork, and a clue to the meaning of From the Mouth of the Whale is perhaps found in the book, A History of Icelandic Literature which refers to him thus:
the way in which Sjon employs international culture, myth, literature, and popular culture is unique, as is the breadth of his scope of reference. The narratives are enriched by light and humorous touches, which allow him to work pliably with what would otherwise seem obscure matters.
And that seems to be a pretty perfect assessment of From the Mouth of a Whale – light, humorous, a mix of culture, myth and literature. The book is certainly deftly written: The prose flows along in an easy, stylish way, describing the natural world with the eye of a poet/scientist and occasionally bringing you up short with some dark passages dealing with mayhem and death.
Jónas Pálmason seems to have been a natural healer. As a young boy he would explore the corpse of a brd, probing into the internal organs and learning similarities between bird and human – “man and bird, man with a bird’s heart, bird with a man’s brain, bird with a man’s heart, bird with bird brain . . . We are alike in most things . . . And why should we not be?”. Before long he had developed healing gifts and by reading the works of Paracelsus had “acquired so great a knowledge of the abdomen that there was scarcely a female malady in existence that I did not have a nodding acquaintance with”.
But 17th century healing was not merely an analytical science. A knowledge of the world of the spirit was a vital part of understanding the causes of illness and deliverance from it. The borderline between Orthodox belief and magic was a thin one and there were those in the community skilled in seeking out those who trod close to witch-craft and sorcery. After experimenting with a “walking corpse” Jónas Pálmason went through a trial for running a school of necromancy and was banished to the barren island from where he writes his stories.
Perhaps the most alarming of the tales concerns the Basque whalers who revive the Icelanders interest in whaling, a skill they had lost over the years. The Basques set up a trading station and developed an amicable relationship with the local community, bringing a new prosperity to the little villages as whale meat was exchanged for farm produce and wool.
But inevitably perhaps, a bitter rivalry develops between the locals and the incomers, with accusations of theft and bad-dealing. One winter, when the Baques are departing for home, a terrible storm blows up in the harbour and the boats begin to break up as they collide with ice-flows. The Icelanders see their chance to rob the ships of their cargo and gather on the shore. They conduct a terrible massacre of the surviving Spaniards, an all too likely history taking into account the brutal times in which poor Jónas lives.
Despite the harshness of the era, Jónas is a poet and lover of the natural world -
Dazzling light: when the day is such a brilliant blue-white that the firmament is no longer a frame for the burning sun, rather the sun has become the kindling for a brilliant silver curtain that rises at the horizon and is drawn across the entire visible world, while the mountain ranges to the north, west and south shimmer as if in a strange mirage, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight, but never still; and the sea is a sheet of billowing velvet...
I know little of 17th century Iceland, but it all sounds very plausible. A land of mountains, icy seas and ancient stories. Jónas Pálmason is a believable character, reflecting on his troubled life from his remote island fastness and sustained by Christian imagery mingled with a belief in the mysterious powers of birds, plants and fishes.
As to my questions at the start of this review, What is it about? what is the purpose of it?, I think I saw it as entertainment - a quirky story of times past in a strange culture. It works on the level of “story-telling” and it would be a great book to read aloud. I suspect its in some sort of Icelandic tradition but I don’t know much about that. I enjoyed reading From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon’s stories had me in their grip for a couple of days and planted images in my mind which will I will probably recall when next I hear of the that northern land, more in the news these days for banking disasters than adventures with whales and walking corpses." - Tom Cunliffe
"Sjón’s last novel translated into English (and indeed his first novel translated into English), The Blue Fox, was Scott Pack’s favourite book of 2009. I read it on his recommendation, and liked it, but somehow it slipped through the review net and I never wrote about it here. I wonder now if that ‘somehow’ might have included a frustration at working out how to represent the strange story. It’s a feeling that recurred when approaching this review.
From the Mouth of the Whale (2008, tr. 2011 by Victoria Cribb) is Sjón’s most recent novel, and the English title varies significantly from the original, Rökkurbýsnir (Marvels of Twilight). It is a delight and a wonder, a barking mad story which detached me from my expectations and entwined me in the narrator’s ridiculous charm.
As the book begins all we know is that we are in Iceland (“this unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”) in the 1630s, listening to the – what? narrative? ramblings? – of Jónas Pálmason, who likens himself to a sandpiper as he lies in exile on an island, slandered and attacked by “villains” and “tyrants”. “Jónas is a rogue, Jónas is a sly, disreputable fellow, Jónas is a braggart, Jónas is a liar, Jónas is a foolish dreamer…” There might be some truth to these charges. As he languishes on “this bird-fouled rock, this dance-floor of seals”, Jónas lets us into his thoughts. Are they eccentric, or just ahead of their time? He collects birds’ skulls, seeking a stone he calls bezoar, “that could heal all human ailments.” He recalls his time as a child healer, laying hands on female private parts to diagnose conditions (“…thus I read together book and woman…”). He steps, sideways and surreptitiously, toward the whole of his story.
Frankly the eccentric and piecemeal way of telling which Sjón – or Jónas – adopts, makes it a challenge both to unravel the truth of his story, and to represent it here. “When a thing is classified correctly,” Jónas says when cataloguing elements of natural history, “it is tamed.” This book is unclassifiable and untamed, wild and joyful in its telling, and in its bonkers cobbling together of myths, cultural history, science and religion to make a dazzling literary patchwork quilt. Meaning seems less important than feeling, and Jónas’s love of knowledge and intellectual investigation drives his story and his way of telling. He is writing before the Enlightenment, and his ideas challenge the status quo and anger the authorities: “sorcery” and “necromancy,” they call it. His style has a joyous physicality, throwing the reader into the vivid life in the pages, such as a description of a ‘walking’ corpse, or the aforementioned ‘reading’ of women’s lower abdomens. Inevitably these do not bear extraction, because the cumulative effect of J#ónas’s voice is what makes it so remarkable.
In the middle of the book is a section called ‘Kidney Stone’, which gives us a calmer, third person narrative and offers hope for Jónas, as he travels from his exile to Denmark, and is taken under the wing of a scholar known as Ole Worm. This gives us more evidence of Jónas as the seeker after truth, as he investigates the local trade in unicorn horns, but finds that his enemies have not forgotten him. Later, the narrative returns to his own rolling, tumbling voice, and he tells us more (though not as much as we might expect from the cover blurb) about the deaths of his children (“one never becomes used to it”) and his wife’s love (“the terrible thing is that her loyalty is misplaced. I have done this woman nothing but harm”). The lively nature of Jónas’s narrative sacrifices emotional involvement.
“Every book is imbued with the human spirit,” he tells us, when speaking of how burning a book is as bad as burning a man. There is more spirit than most in From the Mouth of the Whale, and I can only emphasise that you should not be put off by my difficulty in conveying its mad charm. I did wonder at a few of the choices near the end, such as on the last page of his narrative, naming Jónas’s place as somewhere calculated to bring forward connections in the reader’s mind with another famous island exile. And the epilogue, from which the English language edition takes its variant name, seemed to subtract rather than add. Nonetheless, the sheer fizzy delight – a new type of literary pleasure! – in reading this book made me curious to know why none of Sjón’s other five novels has been translated into English. What riches await us?" - John Self
"John Self’s fascinating review of From the Mouth of the Whale intrigued me when I read it, and had it in the back of my mind that I should find this book at some stage. And then, by chance, I found it browsing at a rather wonderful independent Canberra bookstore the other day. So, of course, I had to buy it – I mean, who doesn’t love slightly obscure modern Icelandic fiction?
Iceland of 1635 is very different to that of today. Religion – Christianity in particular – rules the world, and any word spoken against the King, or God, will not be looked upon kindly. Jónas Pálmason, though, has done just that, and has been exiled to an island in the ocean. As he lives out his last days, he relieves how he came to find himself on a barren rock – the people he met, the places he went, and the mistakes he made.
For a modern atheist, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Christianity rules the world, and where daring to say you don’t believe is a corporal offence. But this is the world Sjón gives us. Religion pervades every part of life here, though not perhaps in the most recognisable form. This is a time where Christianity is still violent and naturalistic, where dead bodies can be taken over by souls who have not yet crossed over to heaven come back to haunt. Jónas is a believer, but he is not an idiot, and is deeply interested in the natural sciences, such as they are the 17th century. He knows that unicorns probably don’t exist, even though people try to palm off narwhal horns as unicorn horns to turn a profit.
It gets to the point of almost being magical realism, at times. Jónas has conversations throughout the novel with several birds, a zombie, and a skeleton stuck on the sea bed. Whether this is thorugh divine intervention, or simply a symptom of the wild world in which he lives, we can never be sure. In fact, Jónas’ own sanity is probably questionable – he is an old man living on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, with no one to talk to save for the occasional errant sandpiper. His unreliability, though, is a gift – seeing the world through his eyes is rather special.
There’s a beautiful passage about a third of the way through the novel where Sjón retells the Genesis myth in all its Icelandic, naturalistic beauty. And that’s one of the main selling points of the novel – Sjón gives us an Iceland that is starkly beautiful, particularly in comparison to the Denmark he shows. We get almost no glimpses of Icelandic cities – instead, we see the country as wild frontierland, where people are a little bit mad, and where the harsh realities of a world completely at the mercy of the elements dictates the way people live their lives.
It’s refreshing, and that the same time deeply depressing, to know that the people of the 17th century are just as petty and cruel as those of the 21st. There is a small section in the middle of the novel where Sjón stops dazzling us with beautiful imagery and metaphoric language, and lays out some actual plot. I don’t mean this to sound dismissive, because both parts work perfectly well, but the plot bit made the whole novel hang together a lot more. It’s a brief description of a trip Jónas takes to Denmark (saying anything else would be something of a spoiler), where he tries to have his name cleared, so he can return to Iceland without fear of being chased with pitchforks by an angry mob. He meets a good friend here, eager for help with ancient Icelandic runes, and the two intellects hit it off straight away. More importantly, though, Jónas receives some good news, that is ultimately useless. Because people are crap.
From the Mouth of the Whale is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It is a novel that conjures up a time of history that is savage, brutal, and harsh, though there are clearly people here with which we modern folk can connect. This is a book that demands rereading – the first parts are mysterious and confusing, and will probably make more sense a second time round. Nevertheless, I’m willing, and indeed, looking forward, to doing do." - Matt Todd
"Jónas Pálmason roasts ravens' heads and cracks their skulls in search of the bezoar, a magical stone described by Paracelsus which can heal human ailments and may help in the search for the philosopher's stone. As a small boy he is a healer of women's ailments, and they bring him rotting ravens' heads in their apron pockets. Sjón's new novel opens in Iceland in 1635 at a time when new scientific curiosity was inextricably mixed with magic and mythical marvels. Jónas is in solitary exile on a bare island off the coast of Iceland. He has been found guilty of blasphemy. His only companion is a purple sandpiper, speckled and garrulous, who, he thinks, resembles him.
Much of Jónas's story is grim and horrific, like the unforgiving landscape and harsh Icelanders, but Jónas's mind and Sjón's writing are full of brilliant details, surprises and delights. There is a wild account of the laying of a walking corpse, vanquished by verses. There are tender and tragic episodes of the deaths of children and the fate of Jónas's wife, a woman clever enough to have worked out what caused eclipses of the sun and moon. There is an appalling description of the Icelanders' gruesome treatment of Basque whalers who come to fish from their shores. Jonas thinks about human cruelty. "When did a skilled craftsman first fiddle with a nail between his fingers, then happen to glance at the hammer that hung heavily at his side, and see not the carpentry job in front of him, but his brother nailed to a cross?" He thinks about knives that have been used not to carve wood, slice mutton from the bone or harvest angelica, but to "find an easy path to the jugular vein of one's fellow man".
Jónas is taken from his exile to Denmark, where he works with the scientific scholar, Ole Worm. There is a splendid passage where he explains Worm's treasured unicorn horns as the spikes of narwhals – Worm has already worked out what a monster a horse would be which could support such a protrusion. The book is full of scientific observations of creatures such as the sea speckle, the red poison needle, the oleander, the bluebottle or coral. The red poison needle is "a dangerous creature of the shore, slender as a piece of straw, which often lurks in wet seaweed, wriggling and writhing, with jagged stings which can pierce the flesh like a needle". Coral is described for its magical properties as an amulet and a cure for a gripe in the guts. The sea-speckle is a tiny bird, precisely described, which is believed to have hatched from a kind of seaweed four or five fathoms long . . . The mixture of precision and imagined wonders is very much of its time, and also suits the way Sjón writes. The tale is elegantly crafted, each part revealing another aspect of the lost world.
In one central episode the exile is visited by a strange boatman (a modern figure wearing glass pebbles over his eyes which puzzle and intrigue Jónas). The day begins with dazzling light which is described as "tinkling bright silk thread" and "blazing needlework", where "one line springs from another, like vein branching from vein on a birch leaf, or the back of one's hand, or a precious stone". The man brings a vision to Jónas, of a kind of living encyclopedia of all the creatures and elements of the earth: every species of bird, every animal, all the fish of the sea, ordered from the great whales to the smallest specks of life. It is a vision of fullness. Jónas's Iceland is a bleak and beautiful place, where humans live precariously and are threatened by the wild. Sjón does not hint at what modern humans have done to the huge range of creatures and plants, but the sense of loss is nevertheless present in the book.
Jónas describes the processes of his own thinking. He is interested in watermarks in paper – forms only visible in certain light, concealed meanings. In one marvellous passage he defines the word "grotesque" (from the word grotto, a small cave) and goes on to sing the praises of the "modern master printers who think like the scribes of our old Icelandic languages" and decorate their texts with impossible creatures –"a centaur here, an old woman with birds' feet there, a three-headed dog". He writes of things seen where one form flows into another - lava spreading, clouds of steam or great torrents, a field rippling in the wind - and meditates on how the mind makes things from these shifting forms. Jónas rejects Snorri Sturluson's rules for the making of metaphors, the logic informing the comparison of a sword to a snake, and pleads – in startling prose – for an art that connects everything to everything. "A blue bird's wing extends from a small boy's temple, but by the time one reaches the tip of the wing the feathers have changed into bright green cabbage leaves with foam bubbling over the edges."
Sjón is a poet, and the aesthetic excitement is his own. He is an extraordinary and original writer. And his translator, Victoria Cribb, is also extraordinary in her rendering of the roughness and the elegance, the clarity and the oddity of this splendid book." - AS Byatt
"Icelandic author Sjón’s latest novel, From the Mouth of the Whale (translated by Victoria Cribb), follows the life of Jónas Pálmason, an Icelandic man sentenced to live out his life on a bleak and uninhabited island after being convicted of practicing the arts of sorcery and necromancy. The novel, which is set in the years 1635-1639 when Jónas is in his mid-sixties, is Jónas’s poetic and surreal stream of consciousness touching on the major events of his life, including laying to rest a troublesome ghost who haunts a remote village and meeting and falling in love with his wife.
Aside from a brief trip to Copenhagen to plead his case, the whole of Jónas’s story is confined to his island. After years of solitude, Jónas’s identity has merged with that of his desolate surroundings: “I am the brother of all that divides, all that curls, all that intertwines, all that waves…after the day’s rain showers the web of the world becomes visible…the moment night falls, the beads of moisture glitter on its silver strings…nature is whole in its harmony.”
Jónas’s weighty and formal voice makes his story feel almost Biblical, calling to mind the universal conflict between innovation and repression. And, like that of many visionaries throughout history, Jónas’s tale is filled with loathsome villains “who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, from the livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner.” Victoria Cribb is to be commended for capturing Sjón’s unique voice in her English translation, a difficult task to be sure.
While this is undeniably a fictional account of a man living during the 17th century, it shares few characteristics with those novels described as historical fiction. This is not a realistic rendering of a specific historical time and place so much as it is an exploration into the ravaged mind of a persecuted man. Reading From the Mouth of the Whale is like studying one of those gruesome Goya paintings of the interior of an early 19th-century madhouse: a fascinating, if unsettling, experience." - Gwendolyn Dawson
"Jónas Pálmason the Learned was one of those people whose life is forever turning with the wheel of fortune. He had no sooner reached a safe haven than he was sent straight back out on to the stormy sea, and always in a leakier vessel than the one in which he had arrived.
From the Mouth of the Whale opens with a strange prologue. Lucifer tells us the story of his first encounter with man and the moment that led to his expulsion from Heaven. It is not particularly flattering.
Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow. Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over on to your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes – mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was: ‘I’.
See what I mean? And it actually gets worse from there. In case there was ever a doubt, Lucifer is not a fan. But what this passage does is establish that this story is set on the Northern part of the globe. Lucifer has just come back from hunting the bull elk and the shag-haired trout and a monstrous tusked boar. The manner in which he tells his story is reminiscent of Inuit or Norse folklore.
The remainder of the novel (with a few exceptions) is narrated by Jónas Pálmason, called Jónas the Learned. He is the equal of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Mark Helprin’s Oscar Progresso from Memoir from Antproof Case, who are (to my mind) two of the most entertaining storytellers in fiction. By turns sardonic and regretful, paranoid and persecuted – Jónas is beset by a torrent of memories. These he relays as quickly as possible, one event transitioning into another. Memories of his past, conversations he would have had with his children, scraps of knowledge pulled from books – all come out in an almost incessant stream of consciousness.
The year is 1635, just two years after Galileo Galilei went before the Spanish Inquisition and was forced to recant that the earth orbited the sun. Our Jónas is a self-taught healer, a runic scholar, a poet, an artist, an observer of the natural world, and a collector of pagan lore. As such, he’s been accused of sorcery by his enemies (much like mid-wives were accused of being witches). Forced to live as an outlaw, the courts decree that no one may give aid to him or his family. Yet, he cannot leave Iceland unless someone provides passage. Caught in this Catch-22, Jónas helplessly watches as his family is made to suffer and all but one of his children die. Despite all that he endures, he cannot stifle his desire for knowledge.
Sjón has convincingly and amusingly rendered the illogicality of a man of science before science existed. Jónas scoffs at the existence of unicorns, but tells us about the exorcism which made him famous.
‘It seems to me that the best way to go about it would be by the sort of exorcism that good priests used to perform in papist times, that is, to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent. In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place. For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands? For that matter, how is he to know that he is not one of the elves? Both live outside human society? How is he to know that he is not a piece of driftwood? The flesh of both is equally rotten and stinking. Or a stray dog? Both are shooed away. Or merely a rock that rolls down the mountainside, causing men to dodge?’
Jónas goes on to conclude that he should berate the ghoul in verse.
Seventeenth Century Iceland appears to have been both cold and brutal. But Sjón immerses his readers in the mind of his hero, which is a foreign and colorful place. The plot of From the Mouth of the Whale closely resembles the Old Testament’s Book of Jonah, but our Jónas is an old man with a tendency to ramble. Despite the hardships, it’s a surprisingly funny tale. Sjón has created a character so quirky, so strange and irreverent that the reader can’t help but be amused. The journey this story takes us on has all the makings of an epic adventure. Just not in the traditional sense." - Book Sexy Review
"Icelandic magic realism, sinister comedy, and dark deeds unfold in a series of vignettes and set pieces in From the Mouth of the Whale. Natural historian, runic scholar, poet, and healer Jónas Pálmason has been exiled to a remote island in 1635 as the Protestant Reformation sweeps Catholicism and pagan superstitions underground. Literally.
In an early tale Jónas, aged five, is swept along with his family and the people of his village to a mound where spirits are said to live. The earth is cleared from the side of the hill to reveal a buried statue of the Virgin Mary, still venerated by the older people who have been forced to abandon their former faith and its icons.
As he grows older Jónas gains a reputation as a healer and a shamanic figure, an animist who seems to share a psychic link with the naked Iceland landscape in which he travels. But from early on he arouses suspicion.
Sjón—deftly translated into English by Victoria Cribb—writes a rich layered prose that, like his protagonist, seems to spring from the extremes of Icelandic dark and light.
Describing Jónas composing a poem on Iceland’s birds with a youthful accomplice Sjón writes: “Láfi had begun the poem, the first three stanzas were his, but had run out of birds and inspiration by the time I turned up. As we walked from farm to farm we took to chanting the poem together. He recited the first verses, which he had knocked together with some skill, and I slid into the metre—slipped into like a tongue into the socket of a well-boiled sheep.”
From early on we know that Jónas has been exiled with just his wife for company. She constantly berates him for “that sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”
“That sort of nonsense” is Jónas’s apparent mastery of dark arts, his reputation as an exorcist and healing skills that are rooted in the folklore of his country and pagan rites.
He admits himself that he brought unwelcome attention to himself by “meddling in affairs too deep for a poor poet, by which I had provoked enmity of powerful men with who I could not contend, failing to realize they were jackals, not lions, that they would not be satisfied until they had severed my head from my body.”
Jónas seems at times to live in a hinterland between the harsh reality of his life in 17th century Iceland—the deaths of three of his children and the communal frenzy that resulted in the slaughter of a group of Basque fishermen—and an esoteric hinterland, grounded in nature but which shimmers into other worldliness.
These experiences define him and draw down the antagonism of the puritanical Christians who now control his country, who burn books and execute heretics, and who want to impose their worldview on those who do not share it.
Switching from first to third-person narrative, From the Mouth of the Whale is a story of a man out of sync with the time in which he lives but whose very sense of being is wired into the physical environment into which he was born.
Beautiful prose, sharp observation of nature, folklore, poetry, grotesque violence, human loss, and outright comic chaos weave in and out of this confidently written novel in which the narrative tone is in perfect pitch with the story being told." - Tony Bailie
Sjón, The Blue Fox, Trans. By Victoria Cribb, Telegram Books, 2008.
"The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. From there we’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friðrik B. Friðriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868.
The fates of Friðrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.
Winner of the Nordic Literary Prize and nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize."
"I shall cut to the chase. This is an exceptional book. Truly stunning. I adored every one of the 112 pages. I strongly suspect I shall spend most of the rest of the year recommending it to anyone who will listen, and probably anyone who won't. Stop reading this review and go and buy it now. You'll thank me later.
The Blue Fox is short, and deceptively simple. On the surface it follows two loosely connected stories set across a few days in Iceland during winter 1883. The priest Baldur Skuggason is on a hunting trip, tracking the elusive titular blue fox through a biting blizzard. The biologist Fridrik Fridriksson is preparing the funeral of his maid, Abba, who had Down's Syndrome.
What makes The Blue Fox so special is both the poetry of the language and the way that the stories build cumulatively, scene by scene. The effect is almost hypnotic. I never wanted it to end, but end it did with a subtle twist that brought the strands together neatly and cleverly.
A great deal is made in literature about the value of a sense of place. I'd take a bloody good story over decriptions of hills and mountains any day but when an author does get it right it can render a novel unforgettable. Sjon does that here. You are not reading about Iceland in the 19th century, you are right there, freezing your tits off.
One fascinating, and haunting, sequence looks back to Fridrik's first meeting with Abba. He finds her tied up in an outbuilding, accused of murdering her newborn child. From his studies in Denmark he recognises her as suffering from Down's Syndrome, a newly discovered condition. For years, doctors had been baffled by white women giving birth to babies with Asian, Mongol-looking, features. They already knew the developmental stages of the foetus: fish-lizard-bird-dog-ape-Negro-yellow man-Indian-white man, but the Mongoloid babies were a mystery until Dr. J. Langdon H. Down discussed them in a paper on the classification of idiots. Fridrik recognises the signs of Down's in Abba, even though babies born with the condition were usually smothered at birth and rarely made it into adulthood. He rescues her and cares for her until her death, which is where we join the story.
Full marks must go to the book's translator Victoria Cribb, from what I can tell she has done a cracking job in retaining the poetry of the original. Sadly we lose some of the inferences to be taken from the character names - the priest's being an important play on words - but there was no getting round that.
The front of the book features a quote from Bjork calling it 'a magical novel'. She is almost certainly biased - Sjon wrote the lyrics to Isobel and others of her songs - but she is absolutely right. And don't just take my word for that. If you would prefer a review from a proper writer then click here to read AS Byatt in the Times. She won the Booker Prize you know. She thinks it's great too.
My only regret upon reading The Blue Fox is that, as my first book of the year, it has set the bar very high indeed. It is going to be difficult for anything else I read during 2009 to be as haunting, beautiful and just plain wonderful as this. I may have scuppered myself.
The Blue Fox is published by Telegram Books who got huge praise in various comments last time I mentioned them on these pages and are quicky becoming a publisher whose books demand attention. I can't wait to read more from them." - Steve Stack
"Rarely does an author come loaded with such impressive indie and establishment credentials. As Björk’s long time collaborator, Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark. Renowned throughout Iceland for his numerous plays and poetry collections (the first of which was published when he was just sixteen) in 2005, Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox) was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize – the Nordic equivalent of the Booker. Bile might start to rise in certain quarters at the thought of musical hipsters who think they can pull off a novel. But in this beautiful, tiny book, Sjón has produced the literary equivalent of a snowflake, a hundred page riff on the literature, landscape and history of Iceland which reads more like an epic poem, albeit with one striking piece of modernity thrown in.
Two men dominate the book – local pastor Baldur Skuggason, who is tracking the eponymous fox through glacial fields, and Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, a returning prodigal who has abandoned Iceland for late seventeenth century Copenhagen and the company of a group called the lotus-eaters. Fridrik returns home to settle his deceased parents’ affairs, intending to burn the farm buildings and head back to a life of smoke and pleasure domes, but his discovery of a young girl, Abba, scrabbling for food in the outhouse of an old friend, prompts an act of kindness which forces him to stay, and sets him up in opposition to the reverend hunter.
The fact that Abba has Down’s Syndrome, a fact recognised by the medically well-read Fridrik, is an unsettlingly modern sleight of hand. In a book where everything else is perfectly pitched historically, it rings an odd but important note, forcing the reader to examine things more closely, and thereby realise that what we’re essentially reading is a good old-fashioned fairy tale. This is exactly the kind of Grimm story where people get lost in the woods, animals are liable to start talking, and the peasant girl is bound to turn out to be a princess – if she doesn’t get eaten by the wolf first. The characters are ciphers, the landscape is all consuming and we can probably take a decent guess at the ending. What makes it all so wonderful is the skill with which it is written.
Sjón’s poetic training tells. Most of the pages hold less than a paragraph, the observations are sparse and disconnected, and whilst perhaps it’s an obvious trick to leave so much blank space in a story dominated by snow, the effect of short chapters is a slowing of pace, not a Dan Brown-esque increase. Each word in its scarcity is loaded high with importance, so that your mode of reading changes and like the pastor tracking the fox, you pay close attention to every mark on the page. There are some lovely images too – the sound of snowmelt passes for birdsong, the beard of one character, “tumbles from his chin like an ice-bound cataract,” and the rhythm of each sentence is crafted by someone who is used to measuring syllables. Credit for this last must surely go to Victoria Cribb, the novel’s translator, without whom, “this most Icelandic of novels” as Sjón himself termed it, would not be available for impoverished monoglots like me. I wish I could explain the pun on the pastor’s name and the Icelandic title of the book, I’m sure it’s just one more subtlety in a very subtle book we’re missing." - Sarah Hesketh
"So it was a dog last week, this week it's a fox, a blue one, and I'm just wondering what it might be next week (suggestions?)
But firstly I'm also wondering how a publisher like Telegram Books has passed unnoticed in my reading life to date?
Why hadn't I heard of them?
Should I get out more?
Do the reps get this far because surely I'd notice books like these on the shelves?
The Telegram list is that perfect blend of old and new with plenty of fiction in translation which I always love, writers from Turkey, the Faroe Islands, Lebanon, China and my first Telegram read Iceland.
What with being a snow expert now, Iceland seemed an appropriate place to read after my Alafoss Lopi moment but I have also read a few other Icelandic authors and enjoyed them, though I'll admit I'm building slowly to tackling Halldor Laxness (fortify me someone, tell me I'll be alright)
However to The Blue Fox by Sjón.
That queen of Iceland Bjork thinks this is a 'magical novel' whilst A.S.Byatt finds it 'comic and lyrical' so I must see what it is all about.
The author I discover is actually a poet, lyricist and song writer too, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson and the pen name Sjón means 'sight'.
This all bodes well if he can pull it off.
Well I have to agree The Blue Fox is magical, as events during a week in January 1883 unfold and the Reverend Baldur Skuggason sets off on an ill-fated hunting expedition in the teeth of a howling blizzard. Meanwhile his neighbour Fridrik Fridjonsson is dealing with something else entirely.
Having returned to settle his parents' affairs in the neighbourhood fifteen years earlier and intending just a brief sojourn, Fridrik found himself tied to his home again by an act of kindness with the discovery of Hafdis Jonsdottir. Calling herself Abba, Fridrik finds the young girl with Down's Syndrome manacled and ill-treated in a ship which had run aground.
His life with Abba since has been one of pure revelation and when events with Abba weave inextricably with those surrounding the blue fox and Rev. Skuggason, I realised that I was reading one of those deceptively simple but deeply meaningful fables with a hint of fairy tale and perfect elements of myth and mysticism.
Poets, if they can successfully make the transition to fiction, do it with that special word-gift. That minimalist approach, a paring down to the very essentials and you know every single word holds power and meaning. In The Blue Fox, a single sentence on a page requires careful thought, not a quick flick onto the next page and I was frequently stopping to consider
'The sun warms the white man's body, and the snow melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.'
Or this beautiful description of the Northern Lights and my apologies, I can't credit this photo, it arrived in one of those e mails that do the rounds but I had to use it, it fits Sjon's words perfectly.
'The rim of daylight was fading.
In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanted play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.'
The book has its amusing moments too.
Man stalks fox who lures man on deeper and deeper into unknown territory, fortunately man has packed lunch with him,
'Hand thick slabs of lamb, rye cakes with sheep's butter, sour as gall, topped with mutton sausage, a dried cod's head, pickled blood pudding, dried fish, curd porridge and a lump of brown sugar.'
Good, sounds worse than...than...yes, bubble and squeak or heaven forfend...um...tripe and jellied eels (I'll bet someone out there loves tripe as much as all the b&s fans) because even this early on in the book I'm beginning to think this may be just what Reverend Skuggason deserves.
As always hats off to the translator Victoria Cribb. I have always understood that Icelandic is a fiendishly difficult language to grasp, making that capture of the essence of a book like this all the more impressive.
This one would make a splendid book group read because even as I have written this new revelations have come to mind, that fox is still beckoning and I know there is plenty that I have missed in my first reading. All adding to the value of a book like The Blue Fox, it will hold up to many visits and countless interpretations and actually I can't wait to read it again." - dovegreyreader
My weekend of reading those short books in translation is going apace, with two and a bit down. I also read possibly my first book by an author with only one name, since I've never read anything by Cher... oh, wait, no, there's Saki too. Anyway. It's definitely the first Icelandic book I've read, The Blue Fox by Sjon. Imagine the accent on the 'o', if you will - apparently this penname means 'sight'.
I'd heard about the novel (novella?) in a few places - first at dovegreyreader, methinks, then later when Scott Pack chose it as his first Blogger's Book of the Month - and Claire at Paperback Reader has also written about it - there you go, three reviews to read before I even get past a weak Cher joke. And they all liked it - you can add me to that pile.
Published in Icelandic in 2004, Victoria Cribb's translation was published by Telegram Books in 2008. I always make sure to credit translators, because it is one of the jobs which impresses me the most, being about as far away as possible from own (incredibly limited) skill set. And, though I cannot compare Cribb's translation with Sjon's original, I'm pretty certain that the atmosphere of the book has been carried across.
The Blue Fox takes place in January 1883, and the first section follows the priest Baldur Skuggason as he is on the trail of the elusive blue fox. Each page has a paragraph or two of text on it, slowing down the reading process and giving the words the form, as well as the language, of poetry. Not that it is overly full of imagery or anything like that - rather, the language is sparse and deceptively simple. And there is a subtle humour throughout. One page reads simply: 'The night was cold and of the longer variety.' We follow the slow and careful hunt, and even if (like me) you're willing the fox to escape, this is still beautiful writing. Completely unlike anything I've read before.
Just as the trigger is pulled on the gun, we jump back a few days, to the world of Fridrik B. Fridiksson and his charge Abba, who has Down's Syndrome. Apparently it was rare, in the mid-19th century in Iceland at least, for babies with Down's Syndrome to be left alive.
No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.
Once more the structure is strange, as it's going backgrounds. We meet characters before we know their histories; sometimes we are told they are dead before they even appear. It all lends a disorientating feeling, but fairy-tale-like rather than sinister. Perhaps it is the mediation of translation, or perhaps it is in Sjon's writing, but The Blue Fox feels almost mystical, as though it is read through a glass darkly.
I'll be honest - I wasn't *as* bowled over by the novella as Scott Pack was, but I am very glad that I've read it. The sections of the hunt, especially - which continue at the end of the book, increasingly and beautifully surreal - were haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I've read. For a taste of Icelandic literature, and a glimpse of a wholly different world and time, I suggest you pick up The Blue Fox - you're unlikely to read anything else similar this year." - Stuck In A Book
"I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.
Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”
And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion, such as
She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world. But before he could nod in return, the smile vanished from her face and was at once replaced by a mask so tragic that Fridrik burst into tears.
Because of this difficulty with the language my reaction to the book is quite mixed, but ultimately I can only say that the book is certainly worth reading. The story begins with a hunt for a blue fox by an unnamed man, sparsely narrated in bits of short paragraphs isolated to pages of mostly white space, lending to the sense to the Icelandic-blizzard landscape while maintaining a quietness to the storytelling which allows free reign to the reader’s imagination. It reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea until the hunter’s prey takes on a certain playfully mythic character just before the end of the first part, but before the matter is resolved we are taken back to another character and another narrative. This one is the touching drama of a man grieving the death of his adopted daughter-figure, a girl with Down’s Syndrome. In the third part we return to the hunter, and the story becomes a surreal comedy in the vein of Kafka’s Metamorphosis as he becomes trapped in a cave by a snowdrift. In the end, a not-altogether unpredictable (yet appropriately so) revelation ties the two narratives together.
The Blue Fox is a pretty, touching, funny little book whose translation seems quizzical and maybe a bit frustrating at times, but the story is large enough within its 112 pages that complaints of prosodic trouble-spots would be a poor excuse to pass it over." - Phillip A. Witte
"Different. Very different. Mysterious. I don’t always feel like finding out more about a book but this time I did. The Blue Fox is a haunting story full of ice and snow and darkness. Historical fiction and fairytale. It takes place at the time when Iceland has finally gained independence from Denmark. Fridrik, one of the protagonists, studied in Copenhagen. He is a naturalist and a herbalist. He returns to Iceland to burn down his late parents farm and erase all of his old life. But then he finds Abba, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, who is kept in captivity. He decides to stay for her sake until the day she dies an early death. The book tells also the story of the priest Baldur Skuggason and the little blue vixen he is hunting. This is a very short novel but it is rich and multi-layered. Compellingly atmospherical and descriptive. What we don’t know unless we do a little bit of research is the fact that Skugga-Baldur, the Icelandic title, refers to a ghost being, part fox, part cat. A mysterious mythological creature. The English translator decided to name one of the forms of Skugga-Baldur. The German opted for the title Schattenfuchs, meaning shadow fox. Even though it has fairytale elements The Blue Fox is also very realistic. The writing is sparse, the information is well-chosen, we get a good impression of life in Iceland at the end of the 19th century. One thing that I found very interesting is the fact that Down’s Syndrome never existed in Iceland. Sjón deliberately chose to write about it as he was shocked when he found out that children showing signs of it in the womb are immediately aborted.
Sjón writes the lyrics for Björk and also wrote the lyrics for the movie Dancer in the Dark. He is a well-known Icelandic poet. His affinity to poetry is very obvious.
I don’t think that I have read a lot of Icelandic literature so far apart from bits from the Edda and I have books by Halldor Laxness on my TBR pile.
Does anyone have recommendations? Any Icelandic writers you like or know of?" - Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
"Written by the Icelandic author and poet Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón, The Blue Fox is just one of Sjón's many works amid a respectable repetoire that includes poetry, children's books, novels, and plays. Among his credits is a lyrical collaboration with fellow Icelander, Björk on the song “I've Seen it All.” A beautifully written and simplistically poignant song, “I've Seen it All” reflects the insight of his lyrical voice and the seemingly prophetic power of his first name Sigurjón, meaning “sight” in Icelandic. And, coincidentally, The Blue Fox is one of the most insightful stories I have ever read.
It begins with a spattering of instances from the view of the Priest and the Blue Fox, the hunter and the hunted, amidst the landscape of a harsh Icelandic winter in 1883. So determined to hunt and kill the enigmatic blue fox, Priest Baldur Skuggason battles the elements and risks his life, enduring freezing temperatures, harsh winds and avalanches. The passages alternate between the perspective of the man and the perspective of the Fox, the man determined to have her fur as a trophy and the Fox determined to keep her life. Fridrik B. Fridriksson, a parishioner of the Priest's, and Fridriksson's adopted daughter, Abba, are introduced to us near the middle of the story. Suffering from Down-Syndrome, Abba is banned from the Priest's church due to her disorder. Offering some insight into the Priest's personality, his treatment of Abba makes us a little less likely to wish him out of the hardships he encounters while hunting the Fox. Our sympathy for the Priest is further tested when we find that Abba is actually his daughter and he discarded her long ago because of her mental illness.
We find ourselves identifying the Fox as more human than the man. We are with the Priest through his steady transformation into an animal more animal than the Fox. Left with no sympathy for the Priest, our sympathy lies with her and our sense of fulfilled justice lies in his transformation which, we can only assume, will soon end in his death. The outcome of the Priest’s hunt reflects the inner most self of the man and serves as the culmination of his comeuppance. Ultimately, nature gets the best of him and he is revealed as more beast than man.
The Blue Fox is a novella that transcends its small binding and introduces the reader to a refreshingly new take on the ageless war between man and nature. Interwoven with instances of magical realism, the story of Priest Baldur Skuggason and the Blue Fox seem a dark Icelandic folktale, revolving around the mysteries of nature and the complexities of man." - HubPages
"Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson, better known as Sjón, is a postmodern artist in his own right, novelist, poet and lyricist. His persona is connected with the kind of artistic flair that I tend to categorize as pretentious.
Internationally, he is perhaps best known for having written the lyrics to some of Björk’s songs. He even received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his lyrics to “I’ve Seen it All” from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
I had never read one of his books before, but heard that they were both surreal and complicated, which is why I expected not to like The Blue Fox. I was so afraid that my negative expectations would blur my objective thinking that I was hesitant to even pick it up.
But, as it happens, Sjón is full of surprises.
The book begins inside the mind of a poor scared female fox who is being hunted. Describing her feelings, the surroundings, the weather and the hunter with only a few carefully-chosen words, Sjón brings his readers to the cold snowy mountains of an Icelandic winter. The words flow like a poem and are so realistic that you can almost feel the snow blow down your shirt.
Then the perspective shifts, revealing the hunter’s thoughts, examining the shadows of his mind and his dark intentions. Nothing can keep him away from his prey. After playing this game of hide and seek for some time, I began to wonder for how long this can go on, without getting boring, that is.
Just then the story takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, readers are taken a few days back in time to the peaceful countryside. Another man is introduced, a farmer and an herbalist, who with stoic calm is making a coffin for a loved one who has passed away, handing it over to the local priest’s mentally-disabled servant.
Little by little, the reader learns more about these two main characters, the hunter, who is also the priest, and the herbalist, and how they’re stories are intertwined. It’s a short book and therefore a simple story, one might think, but there is much more to it.
The Blue Fox recounts beautifully the eternal struggle between human wickedness and compassion. Despite being short there is quite a lot of story between the two covers, because much can be read between the lines.
It contains both realistic and surreal elements—in a way in which the surrealism makes sense in this alternate reality—and references are made to folk-stories and books by authors such as Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness.
The story is set in the late 19th century when Iceland was primarily a nation of poor, uneducated farmers over which preachers had a stronghold through religion. It provides a portal into the Icelandic existence before the nation began its quick-paced journey into modernism.
The book is written in the style of romantic nationalism, which had just awakened among Icelanders at that time, with a new sense of national identity and fight for independence. Similarly, Sjón’s use of language is deliberately dated. But it is also refreshingly original considering that most of today’s authors seem to think originality lies in slang.
Sjón engages in intricate wordplay such that much must be lost in translation. The original title, for example, is Skugga-Baldur, which is a malicious creature from Icelandic folklore, half cat, half fox, but in the story it is also the name of one of the main characters, Rev. Baldur Skuggason, the fox hunter.
Originally published by Bjartur in 2003, The Blue Fox earned Sjón the 2005 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. This year, after being released in English, the book received a nomination for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced in May.
Whether The Blue Fox deserves to win, I cannot say, but it certainly deserves to be read. Contrary to my expectations, this is not a work of pretension at all, although I would have preferred if it had delved a bit deeper into the storyline at times and left a little less for the reader to guess. However, because of these gaps, I imagine it could spark quite interesting discussions at book circles." - Eygló Svala
"Sjón is an Icelandic writer, and I bought an English translation of this novel while I was on holiday in Iceland last month. Sjón is first and foremost a poet, and this is a very slim little volume - barely more than 100 pages. But those pages are so full of magic and beauty and harshness and such a vivid sense of place that I could barely believe the author managed to say so much in so few words. In that sense, and in some of its themes, this book reminds me of Alan Garner's brilliant Thursbitch - and coming from me, that is not a comparison to be taken lightly.
The Blue Fox is the story of a huntsman-priest in 19th century Iceland, Baldur Skuggason, obsessed with hunting the mysterious 'blue fox' or 'skugga-baldur' that roams the snow-covered mountain landscape in the dark days of midwinter. It's also the story of the herbalist Fridrik Fridjonsson and Abba, the horribly abused young Down's Syndrome woman he has taken in and loves like a daughter, helping her to compile a collection of carefully-identified feathers from Iceland's rich and varied bird life as he gradually learns the strange language she has created for herself during her years of neglect. It's the story of life, death, shamanism, landscape and metamorphosis, as the hunter becomes the hunted, human beings become puzzles, and the landscape and language become one and the same.
The Blue Fox could only ever have been written in Iceland, in that unique landscape, that odd mixture of beauty and harshness. Like a Nordic fairytale, it combines magic and brutality, gentleness and violence, the metaphysical and the mundane.
As a young man, studying in Denmark, Fridrik tells his opium-smoking companions: "I have seen the universe; it is made of poems." His Danish friends laugh and tell him he is "a true Icelander" - and they are right. I've been to Iceland, and never before have I ever been so convinced that the universe is, without a doubt, made of poems ." - Joanne Sheppard
"The Icelandic writer Sjón, whose international breakthrough came with his novel The Blue Fox, is a renaissance man. Sjón started his career as a poet at age 15, and took part in Reykjavik’s cultural explosion in the 1980s when “there was no hierarchy in the arts.”
He was a member of a neo-surrealist group called Medusa. “We then all became anarcho-surrealists,” he added.
It was during this period that he met singer-songwriter Björk and began his collaboration writing lyrics for her that has lasted until today; Sjón has three songs on Björk’s newly released album Biophilia. In 2000, one of his songs for Björk was used in the Lars von Trier’s film “Dancer in the Dark” and nominated for an Academy Award. Sjón went to Hollywood for the ceremony. “That was one of the experiences in my life that I can truly call surreal,” he said.
Sjón is not foreign to the world of film as he also pens screenplays. He wrote a screenplay for a film that made the rounds of horror film festivals several years ago entitled “Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.”
“It’s a nitty-gritty splatter film, a dark comedy about innocent tourists massacred by disgruntled whale hunters,” he commented.
The Blue Fox, a story about a priest hunting for an enigmatic blue fox, won the Nordic Literary Prize and has been translated into 21 languages. Sjón is currently finishing his eighth novel, which is the last volume of a trilogy that he began in 1994. His UK publisher, Telegram Books, has world rights to his works in English. Besides The Blue Fox, Telegram has published From the Mouth of the Whale and next year will bring out The Whispering Muse (working title) that was published in Iceland in 2005 and has already been translated into six languages.
“It’s the story of an 80-year-old guy, a former editor of Fish and Culture magazine that focuses on the Nordic race and its consumption of fish. He is invited on the maiden journey of a ship exporting paper pulp from Norway to Russia. One of the crew members claims to have been on the Argo with Jason. They begin to tell each other tales,” said Sjón.
Sjón’s inspiration has always come from melding ancient Icelandic traditions with the avant-garde. “I go into pockets of Icelandic history . . . I love to bring diverse cosmologies alive on the page. I mix myths and crackpot theories together with my need to tell a story.”
Working with 17th century Icelandic texts is also a motivation for Sjón, who said he enjoys managing “the peculiarities of the Icelandic language and its twists and turns.”
This is not easy for his translators, he acknowledges, but because of his excellent grasp of English, he has been able to work closely with Victoria Cribb, his English translator. In other languages Sjón said, “of course I can’t know if the translation is good but I can tell if the person is a good translator by the questions they ask. I am open to working relationships with translators and always find a way.”
At Frankfurt, Sjón said he was enjoying meeting some of his foreign publishers for the first time from Serbia, Portugal, Lithuania and Turkey, where The Blue Fox was published last week. His experience with foreign publishers has taught him that, “it’s better to go with small publishers who are truly dedicated.”
Sjón is currently working on an adaptation of his novel The Whispering Muse for opera (his wife is a mezzo soprano) and is putting the finishing touches to his eighth novel.
In the end, said Sjón, “Man is a narrative animal.” - Olivia Snaije
An Excerpt from Sjón’s “The Blue Fox”
Interview by Davíð K. Gestsson