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Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe And Mail)
Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe And Mail)

The Deep Read

Through Sjón’s skewed lens, a mythical yet modern world emerges Add to ...

  • Title The Whispering Muse
  • Author Sjón
  • Genre fiction
  • Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Pages 160
  • Price $25

Each of these books, translated by Victoria Cribb, echoes Iceland’s mythic past as well as its current climate of economic collapse and creative rebirth. From the Mouth of the Whale tells the story of Jonas Palmason, a 17th-century healer and natural scientist exiled for views neither fully secular or religious, but which express a hybrid, pagan ethos at odds with either school. The novel is a similar mash-up of the rational and the spiritual, juxtaposing taxonomical entries about wildlife with the lyrical and sublime: “The sea is a sheet of billowing velvet … and the whole vision is run through with tinkling bright silk thread.”

The Blue Fox is arranged, according to its author, around the phrasing of a string quartet. After opening with a hunt for the titular canid, a parallel story emerges that is at once a supernatural mystery, a précis of Ovid and a lament for the treatment of the developmentally challenged. These pieces unite in the novel’s final section, where, in what seems a direct nod to Laxness, the intrepid huntsman is swept up in an avalanche before “[coming] to rest in a hollow under the glacier.”

A similar twining structure is also at work in The Whispering Muse, perhaps the best introduction to Sjón’s writing for its clarity of theme and language. Told in vibrant, first-person prose, the story begins with the invitation of an elderly scholar, Valdimar Haraldsson, aboard a merchant ship sailing from Norway to Turkey. A sort of amateur eugenicist, Haraldsson is the founder of Fisk og Kultur (“Fish and Culture”), a journal dedicated to promulgating the theory that Nordic people are “superior in vigour and attainment to other races” because of their primary diet of seafood.

Yet, when the first meals served aboard the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen consist of roast beef and pork shanks, Haraldsson descends into a funk – until, that is, he drops a line into the ocean and catches a mighty cod to feed the crew. “Most of the diners tucked in with gusto,” Haraldsson notes gleefully, oblivious that his passions are mostly humored – even grudgingly tolerated – by his shipmates. Later, he delivers an unsolicited lecture, detailing Homo sapiens’ aquatic origins and concluding, “The sea is the mainspring of the Nordic nations!”

This is a novel rich in sly ironies, and Haraldsson recalls Robert Walser’s great comic creation, Jakob von Gunten, for his blind, clueless enthusiasm. But The Whispering Muse offers more than a series of oddball vignettes, approaching Borges or Calvino in how it doubles back to become a study of narrative itself. The novel incorporates multiple forms: song lyrics, lecture notes, book quotations and a serialized, Odyssean fable told every evening after supper by the ship’s second mate. This mysterious character, who either channels or is Caeneus, the transgendered hero of Greek mythology, conjures each nightly chapter from a splinter he claims to have salvaged from the hull of the Argo.

All the while, the Elizabet Jung-Olsen lies anchored in a Norwegian fjord, awaiting its cargo; with fascination Haraldsson observes the activities of an on-shore paper mill from the ship’s deck. “The greatest pleasure for me,” he says, “was to see the blocks of raw paper gliding past the wheelhouse windows.” Yet there is drama here too; after a tragic accident kills one of the mill workers, Haraldsson spies “one of the deceased workman’s hands trapped in the outer layer of the paper pulp.”

Everywhere, suggests The Whispering Muse, one finds stories, from Caeneus’s fantastic tales of marine adventure to the drama aboard the docked ship (who is the purser’s wife sleeping with? how might the paper mill’s labour dispute resolve? are his shipmates enjoying the fish?). As the novel progresses, the twin storylines begin to braid, until “fantasy” and “reality” conjoin in the book’s climactic scene, revealing any distinction between the two as arbitrary, even false.

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