Friday, July 6, 2012

The Whispering Muse by Sjon.

Myth or Mythos, From the Ancient Greek μθος (muthos, “report”, “tale”, “story”)

A story or set of stories relevant to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group.

Anything delivered by word of mouth: a word, speech, conversation, or similar; a story, tale, or legend, especially a poetic tale.

A tale, story, or narrative, usually verbally transmitted, or otherwise recorded into the written form from an alleged secondary source.

The interrelationship of value structures and historical experiences of a people, usually given expression through the arts.


The year is 1949, the year Iceland joined NATO, sparking off what is arguably Iceland’s most famous riot in March of this year. The riot was prompted by the decision of Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, to join the newly formed NATO, thereby involving Iceland directly in the Cold War, opposing the Soviet Union and re-militarizing the country. All this appears to have bypassed the hero of Sjon’s book The Whispering Muse, the self obsessed eccentric Valdimar Haraldsson, who has little regard for his fellow countrymen and whose thoughts are elsewhere because, also in March of this year, Haraldsson received a letter inviting him to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea. Haraldsson has been invited on this voyage because of his promotion of the idea that the predominantly fish diet of the Nordic race has led to their superiority, an idea he shared with the recently deceased son of the Danish shipping line owner, Haraldsson is a solitary man obsessed with this ideal and who has spent his life writing his journal Fisk og Kultur with aim of  recording this perceived superiority.Sjon - whispering muse

Every evening on board the ship, everyone gathers round the captains table and one member of the crew regales them with tales of his adventures and exploits as a member of the crew of the legendary Argo.

This crewmember, claims to be Caeneus, who according to Greek mythology was originally a beautiful maiden named Caenis and was raped by Poseidon, who then promised to grant her anything she wished; she wished to become a man, so that nothing like this could ever happen to her again. Poseidon granted her wish, and in addition, made her/him invulnerable to all weapons. At the wedding of Pirithous, when fighting broke out between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, Caeneus slew many of the Centaurs but remained unharmed himself. The Centaurs tried in vain to kill him. Finally a mob of Centaurs began piling pine trees upon him, because they could not kill him, but Caeneus changed again and he flew away as a bird.

We learn this & much more as each evening Caeneus enthralls his fellow travellers, starting every tale by removing a piece of wood, a splinter from the bow of the Argo and holding it to his ear appearing to listen to its whisperings, then the telling unfolds as Caeneus entwines both Greek and Scandinavian mythology into his own story. Each evening he holds the passengers in the palm of his hand as he unfolds the tale of Jason and his heroes, of himself.

Mythos = anything delivered by word of mouth: a word, speech, conversation, or similar; a story, tale, or legend, especially a poetic tale, is an apt description of this fantastic (with all its meanings) yarn. Sjon’s fiction trawls the world of myth and fable, gaily highlighting the absurdity and surrealism inherent within the genres. He has the ability to astonish with his storytelling and yet the language is precise, appearing to be pared back to the marrow with nothing extraneous or out of place. This is the second book of Sjon’s I have read and I’m amazed how he can create a world that is, at the same point on the page, both totally believable and yet is also hallucinatory, grotesque, phantasmagorical and fabulous, this is a writer I want to know more about.

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (Sjón) was born in Reykjavik in 1962,. His pen name is formed from his given name (Sigurjón), and means 'Sight'. Poet, novelist and playwright, he has received numerous literary awards, including the Nordic Council's Literature Prize for The Blue Fox, which was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, as was From The Mouth of the Whale in 2012. He was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Brit Award for the music, which he collaborated on with Bjork, for Dancer In The Dark. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages, his works include numerous books of poetry, prose and even children's novels.

This book shares the same translator Victoria Cribb , as the previous two mentioned, Victoria works as a freelance translator from Icelandic to English. She has an MA in Icelandic and Scandinavian Studies from UCL, a BPhil in Icelandic from the University of Iceland, and lived and worked in Iceland for a number of years as a publisher, journalist and translator. In a review of From the mouth of the Whale featured in the Guardian, AS Byatt wrote: 'Sjón 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.'  This I believe also holds true for this one.


"In many respects, Sjon's oeuvre constitutes a novelty in Icelandic literature. 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."
(Eysteinsson and Dagsdottir, p. 452, A History of Icelandic Literature, U of Nebraska Press, 2006)




Publishing Perspectives (Sjon)

Words Without Borders (Sjon)


Unknown said...

A great read, what translated fiction is all about - new voices and fresh ideas :)

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

This really sounds fascinating--I've never heard of this author!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Tony it was a great read & I've Blue Fox to read at some point.

Hi, As the Crowe Flies and Reads, this is my 2nd by this writer & I've already another to read soon, He is a writer I'd like to read a lot more of.

Bellezza said...

How fascinating! Mythology has always intrigued me, but I don't recall the story of Poisedon and Caenus. Clever girl! I like that it's Scandinavian, too, without being one of those awful gory murder stories.

Took a ride on my Canondale today, in temps upward of 100 Farhenheit. What an idiot; I had to call my son to pick me up before heat exhaustion set in. But, my manly husband made home on his own. Maybe I should ask to be a man, too?

stujallen said...

I was blown away by this too Gary yet to post a review ,wonderful mix of classics with a modern twist ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Bellezza, this is just a wonderful tale, from an author who is fast becoming someone I must read all of their work & is a poet.
Ps, concerning the old man, was that partially pride & ego - it would have been with me ;-}

Hi Stu, this easily could make an IFFP list.

Rachel Fenton said...

Translations include some of the very best fiction I've read. I'll definitely get this. Thanks for your comprehensive review.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Rachel, as stated this is my second by this writer & have adored both, can't wait till his poetry is more readily available in English.