Stick This in Your Björk-Hole
Reading Three Brilliant New Books from Icelandic Novelist Sjón
It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that when we know very little about something foreign to us, we tend to reduce that foreign thing to a single joke. Take Iceland, for example. Here we have a beautifully alien plot of land that erupted from the ocean not so very long ago, populated with a people descended from a mixture of Celts and Vikings who are united by a culture—the world's oldest democracy!—that has evolved in a clean, unbroken line from the 12th century to today. And what do most people have to say about Iceland?
Ask any American who's traveled to Iceland, and they'll tell you they've been avalanched by Björk jokes from friends and family, with "So did you meet Björk?" as the most common question by far. Everybody knows the weird pixie-faced singer who once wore a swan dress to the Oscars is from Iceland, and so they stick Iceland in the Björk-hole in their head, ready to proudly unveil that reference if Iceland ever comes up in conversation.
So I suppose it's a blessing of sorts that Icelandic author Sjón has a Björk connection: He has written lyrics for Björk and was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics in Dancer in the Dark. That way, when you're telling friends about this amazing author you've just discovered, you can incorporate the inevitable Björk reference into the conversation cleanly and without incident.
But Sjón deserves more than a Björk joke. Choose any of his three handsome books newly published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and you'll see why.
Of the three, The Blue Fox ($10) is probably the most accessible. Set in the late 1800s, it's the story of a hunter pursuing a mythical animal, a man who takes care of a woman with Down syndrome in a time when most infants with Down were suffocated at birth ("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"), and a priest buried alive under a glacier. Sjón's language is deceptively plainspoken and direct, like the explanatory cadence of Icelandic sagas (those unfamiliar with the sagas will instead probably be reminded of the declaratory sentences of Kurt Vonnegut or Richard Brautigan).
If books described as "fablelike" aren't your thing, you should note that The Whispering Muse ($22) is the funniest of the three. Get a load of these opening sentences:
I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty- seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race. It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years.
Haraldsson, who proudly informs us he is also the author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, is the best kind of terrible narrator. He operates under a series of wrongheaded assumptions (about fish, about racial superiority, about his own dominance over a world that couldn't be bothered to care about him) as he goes on an adventure on a Danish merchant ship in 1949. Haraldsson relates the stories he hears on the vessel, most of which are told by a man who claims to have served on the Argo with Jason. (There are also stories about sailors getting in fights with monkeys, "a story," Haraldsson notes, "that every mariner seems to have in his repertoire.") The book is a big-fish-tale casserole of myth and the mundane explained by a self-important idiot, which somehow makes everything more sublime.
From the Mouth of the Whale ($13) is the most challenging of the three, combining the biblical story of Jonah, the sorry state of women's medicine in the 1600s, and the battle of faith and reason, but Sjón has secreted into the novel the most rewards for patient readers of his work: All of his themes resonate deeply through Whale, and a reader who comes away from the book will have a greater understanding of the country the narrator refers to as "this unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe" with "the perpetual light of high summer" and the "terrible black chill that is the season we call winter." It's a land of bewildering reality and jaw-cracking fantasy; Sjón calls it home.