A Sjón of Ice and Fire

An Icelandic mythmaker gets his American debut.

Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

It’s an old conversation, this one:

In the 13th century, according to one account, Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Skalda, a handbook of poetry: “A metaphor is thought to be well conceived if the notion that has been adopted is maintained throughout the verse. But if a sword is called a serpent, and later a fish or a wand, or changed another way, people call it monstrous and regard it as spoiling the verse.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]

To which, some seven centuries later, Pierre Reverdy replied that no, “the image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be.”

Another century of so on, another refutation, this one from Icelandic novelist Sjón: “Balderdash! Let the sword turn into an adder and the adder a salmon and the salmon a birch twig and the birch twig a sword and the sword a tongue. … Let it all run together so swiftly that it cannot be separated again.” [From the Mouth of the Whale]

The big U.S. debut being given to Sjón this month by the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is an affirmation of this broader, more inclusive sense of the figurative strange. Of course Sturluson’s monsters have been on the move for some time now, with vampires and other fantastical beings (both metaphorical and non-) making themselves at home on our couches and in our refrigerators, as well as our lakes and lemon groves. But as it usually manifests in the work of this country’s younger, literary-fictional types, the language of myth and fable feels more accurately something like whimsy: seemingly there because we like these odd, shiny things rather than out of any kind of urgent creative need for, or real sense of commitment to, the sword that can be both twig and tongue. We don’t have much cultural or linguistic truck with myth over here; never did. Maybe it’s that we are too cynical, or too puritan, in our thinking. Or maybe this kind of mytho-poetic belief, as in Snorri’s time, seems an ugly and hazardous rejection of some unspoken literary rule.

But in Iceland, it’s commonly said, a majority of the population either believes outright in fairies or refuses to discount their existence entirely. The belief is strong enough to extend to the nation’s very blood and bones: roads, pipes, and cables are laid along routes least likely to disturb these creatures’ homes. So that the fantastic should find a place in Sjón’s work would not be surprising—even if we had never heard of Björk, for whom he writes lyrics sometimes—given his country’s cultural entanglement with myth. The crossover is linguistic as well: Icelandic has remained virtually unchanged for centuries and is still the language of the Poetic Eddas, those alliterative medieval epics that relate where the Norse people came from, who their gods were, and how they survived on that bleak and beautiful island under the Arctic Circle’s belt. Plus, what other register could one operate in, really, coming from a place where this sort of thing happens in the sky?

Reading these novels, one realizes that Sjón’s is a system of artistic belief that cudgels as much as it seduces meaning from the strange—sometimes very strange—objects it encounters along the way. He is Freudian in myth, Jungian in archetype, Pagan in scenery, and Surrealist in his ability to allow all of these, dreamlike, to change. And yet he remains, in the midst of it all, contemporary, new, and relevant. The three novels now being published in the U.S. come bearing an appropriate pantheon of blurbs, from Björk, Junot Diaz, and David Mitchell, to situate him among our familiars, as well as a pronunciation tutorial (you say it “she-own”), but they have more in common with Reverdy, Bulgakov, Calvino, and Novalis than anything we read today.

The novels are adeptly translated from the Icelandic by scholar Victoria Cribb, but maintain a rarified sense of geographical and linguistic specificity and pointedness of detail as conduits to broader insight: Although closely tied to the minutiae of Iceland’s past, these strange and sensual worlds seem to be reaching for a kind of universal poetic understanding of things. Sjón himself speaks fluent English (he learned, FSG’s press materials point out, so he could read about David Bowie in NME), so one imagines these versions are true to the tone and spirit of the original.

Internationally, Sjón’s breakthrough was The Blue Fox, a slender prose poem of a book so lyric that refrains and line breaks prove as important to its composition as sentences and paragraphs. And it is composed, reading like a symphony: Two narrative strains, both set in a bleak corner of late-19th-century Iceland, move in a kind of fugue, joining together and resolving only at the end. In one thread, an Icelandic priest named Baldur Skuggason hunts a rare blue fox, a creature with magical, somewhat demonic powers, across a vast white landscape of snow and ice. In the other, a naturalist by the name of Fridrik B. Fridjónsson mourns the death of his charge Hafdís, a young woman with Down syndrome who was rescued from the wreck of a ship. The language is sharp and precise, but incantatory:

“Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope in telling them apart from the rocks themselves. … A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up, and pokes her snout under her thigh.” [The Blue Fox]

Fluidity between and inversions of man and beast—like the shifting tenses of the text, which generate suspense—turn what could be an enchanting tale of magic and whimsy into something of a dagger-edged thriller. The novel’s excitement stems from the fact that metamorphosis is a real possibility here. Man can turn into animal, both literally and figuratively—Baldur Skuggason’s name, like the original Icelandic title, is a reference to the Icelandic monster skuggabaldur, the offspring of a vixen and a tomcat. Likewise, animals can speak and act humane: Arguing over electricity with the priest, the fox presents a quite rational defense of its place in modern life. [The Blue Fox] Hafdís, who as a baby with Down syndrome would have been killed at birth in the Iceland of that time and is treated as less than human, presents another contrast to the cruelty of the priest. Despite her mistreatment, she finds a place in the world, creating her own language and natural history. Her humanity, and what kind and cultivated Fridrik calls the “limits of the habitable world” [The Blue Fox] for such as them—resonates into the present. Today in Iceland, because of prenatal screening, almost no children with Down syndrome are born.

The Whispering Muse also pecks at questions of race and eugenics. The novel features one of those great rarities of literature: a boring narrator about whom it’s not boring to read. An Icelandic scholar with elevated ideas about the relationship of fish consumption to the superiority of Nordic culture (his book is called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector) [The Whispering Muse], Vadimar Haraldsson is a man so self-absorbed and deluded that he doesn’t recognize the annoyance he sows—the reader, reading others through him, has to pick up on it tangentially, and the disjunction can be very funny.

It’s 1949, and Haraldsson is invited to join in the voyage of a Danish cargo ship, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, as she carries raw paper to the Black Sea. Onboard, he finds his attempts at after-dinner conversation impeded by Caeneus, the second mate, a man who, in his multiplicity, is a fitting synecdoche for Sjón’s work itself. Caeneus is both a myth-teller and mythological himself: He says he was a crew member on Jason’s ship the Argo as it voyaged to find the Golden Fleece, a claim no one aboard the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen cares to contest. Each night, he tells part of the story of its virile crew being waylaid on an island of sex-deprived women. As it progresses, the story reveals Caeneus to be at once man and woman, modern and ancient, human and bird. His prose is lyrical and myth-laded, strung through with both Eros and terror. At one point, he relates his (her) rape by the god Poseidon:

“The surf raged in Poseidon’s deep, cold eyes as he flung me flat on my back and crushed me beneath his weight. I tried to scream for help but he forced my teeth apart with his blue fingers and spat a mouthful of raw seaweed inside. … He did not cease until all the air had been knocked from my maidenly lungs and my veins were emptied of blood: then with a spasm of his hips he filled my body with seawater—his climactic groan echoed with the despairing cries of a thousand drowning men. The briny sea flooded through every inch of my body: every sinew, every muscle, every lymph node and nerve—and wherever it went it felt like molten iron poured into the outstretched hand of a child.” [The Whispering Muse]

His tale opens again and again into image-within-image and story-within-story, each strand seeming to predict the others: The legend of Sigurd and Gudrum foretells Jason’s fate, the story of the Argo’s sojourn on Lemnos reflects the Elizabet Jung-Olsen’s extended stay on the Norwegian coast. Canaeus’ narrative does not, however, impress Haraldsson himself, who frequently nods off and complains of the Mate’s droning on.

The fact that a man this dull is the filter through which we read Caeneus’ sublime story gives Sjón the opportunity to show how embedded the fantastic is in even the most prosaic of lives: As Caeneus’ words bleed out of the past and into the present, neither Haroldsson nor anyone else remains untouched. As in all three of these novels, there is a thrilling suggestion of continuity—between reality and myth, ancient and modern, animal and man—that speeds even the strangest specifics of plot into relevance.

From the Mouth of the Whale is not only the most recent but also the most richly conceived of these three. Set between 1635 and 1639, it concerns the fate of Jónas Pálmason, called “the Learned,” an ivory carver and amateur naturalist who is exiled after being accused of sorcery.

“Jónas’ exile takes place on barren Gullbjörn’s Island, but the novel’s real terrain is that of his conscience, as his extraordinary self-taught mind ranges over his bleak memories, questions, and dreams. The story can be grim at times, as Jónas marvels at humanity’s darker imaginings and brutal past: ‘When did a skilled craftsman first fiddle with a nail between his fingers,’ he wonders, ‘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?’ ” [From the Mouth of the Whale]

Jónas’ only companion in his exile is the purple sandpiper—pot-bellied, importunate, and grizzled—which he believes resembles him [FTMOTW]. In this and other interactions with the natural world (the book is studded with his encyclopedic accounts of species like the Sea Speckle [FTMOTW] and Red Poison Needle [FTMOTW]), Sjón once again muddles science (and pseudo-science) with myth. Cruel ghosts are put to rest by reasoning with them, and Jónas bursts into hysterical laughter on being shown a “unicorn horn,” which he knows to be a narwhal’s tusk [FTMOTW]. In a central episode titled “The Kidney-Stone,” [FTMOTW] Sjón gives the taxonomically inclined Jónas a sprawling, encyclopedic vision of the world in which the full majesty and mystery of plant, animal, and mineral is laid out before him, from the white whale to the tiniest speck of stone. [FTMOTW] Nature, like Sjón’s shifting images, which morph and shift, is simultaneous: everything present at once. The pantheistic vision is presented by a mysterious sailor—an avatar of the author himself, whose pen name means “vision” or “sight.”

The supernatural, in all three of these novels, proves to be present more as a tool the literary imagination uses to respond to the world than as a value in and of itself. Images, free to move about and turn as they please—like the whale of From the Mouth of the Whale, which, besides a plain sea creature, is Jonah’s whale, a unicorn, a victim of modernity, and a branch on a chart—give myth an elasticity that enlarges its ability to explain. This can be discomfiting, sure, but the thrill of these novels lies in the sense of their being in some way critically engaged with their form: By taking the old myths seriously as ways of imagining, Sjón is able to transform and make them fresh without counting on the intervention of winks in the direction of things we know and understand. The result is a kind of creative and intellectual joy, even in the midst of dark materials—his way of showing that these old forms matter, have always mattered, and that their history is, in a sense, literature’s. These are exciting things for us to be reminded of, and Sjón’s novels seem like a salutary injection of cold Nordic air into a room that, let’s admit, can get a bit stuffy at times.

From the Mouth of the Whale, The Blue Fox, and The Whispering Muse by Sjón. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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