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An Introduction To Icelandic Writer Sjón's Mythical Fiction

An Introduction To Icelandic Writer Sjón's Mythical Fiction

Picture of Patrick Ball
Updated: 3 January 2017
The Icelandic novelist Sjón’s novel The Whispering Muse is an engaging and immersive reflection on the power of mythology. Patrick Cash reviews the novel and reflects on what it says about the persistence of storytelling as a means of understanding the world around us.
Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson (Sjón) 2012
Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson (Sjón) 2012 | ©Derzsi Elekes Andor | WikiCommons

Sjón’s The Whispering Muse follows the story of an old man, named Vladimar Haraldsson, who is invited upon the merchant ship MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen to travel as a guest from the free port of Copenhagen en route to Norway, conveying raw paper to Izmit in Turkey and then on to Poti in Soviet Georgia. For all the promise of exoticism and far-flung sights that this route holds we find Haraldsson, our first person narrator, to initially be a dry and severely factual tongue. He begins the novel with a reminiscence upon his academic journal Fisk og Kultur, which was devoted to the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race. Yet it is when the journey itself begins that the reader finds himself launched into a beguiling network of stories within stories; when each night after dinner, the second mate Caeneus listens to a piece of wood, his whispering muse, and recounts mythical tales of life upon the fabled vessel of the stars, the Argo, as the Argonauts sought to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

Sjón, an internationally acclaimed Icelandic writer and poet, renders this web with deft execution, Victoria Cribb translating his work into a light and musical English prose. From the ‘real world’ of the Norwegian shipping vessel to the metaphysical realm of legend, boundaries begin to blur as the story progresses. It is tribute to Sjón’s skill and craftsmanship that we as readers are invited to identify more with the crew than our primary narrator of Haraldsson. We, like the crew, gently mock his supercilious sense of himself, and we, like the crew, are kept rapt with attention for the continuation of Caeneus’ stories, which delve into a golden age gone by. Haraldsson himself has very little time for these stories: ‘I preserved an impassive demeanor, clasped my hands on my stomach and listened out of one ear. I kept the other tuned to the galley door as it would soon be time for the fish stew.’

The Whispering Muse
Telegram Books; First edition (11 Jun 2012)

The whispering muse itself, we learn, is a relic of the Argo’s long-lost stern. Ceaneus’ tale chiefly relates to the Argonauts’ quest as they are distracted by the Isle of Lemnos and its race of women, ruled by ‘doe-eyed Queen Hypsipyle’, who claim that their men have left them. A particular stench emanating from their bodies and their peculiar delight in the gory tale within a tale of Sigurd Fafnir’s-Bane, hints at some bloodthirsty truths behind their claim. Several subtle asides within Caeneus’ story allude to another angle of this tale, ‘it was not until years later when we finally learnt the truth about the terrible fate of the men of Lemnos that we understood why their womenfolk’s humor was so black’, but we rarely learn the whole truth of these stories.

Sjón deliberately excludes us from this greater picture of the truth and only intimates the wider allegorical significance of the tales these sailors relate. If the tales are told in fragmentary style, this is often how myth was discovered and relayed. And if it arrives to us by an unreliable narrator then this too is how stories were first conveyed, from tongue to tongue. We craft our own story from the plateaus of the ontological which Sjón sets shifting over one another. Sigurd and Gudrud may have resonance for the hero Jason, son of Aeson, and his men upon the Isle of Lemnos, which in turn holds resonance for Haraldsson and the crew of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen. Indeed, the major setting of The Whispering Muse never moves outside of the Norwegian fjord in which that ship is anchored, a place that bears a physical resemblance to the lulling metaphorical trap of Lemnos; ‘Today I have been looking down the fjord, or perhaps up it, I simply can’t work out which is which. I can’t for the life of me understand where the entrance is to this bowl we’re sitting in.’

It is little surprise that The Whispering Muse arrives with a quote from Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, upon its cover. The feel and nature of the book’s account of ship-life, and its overture of mythology, bear a strong resemblance to the first part of that novel, ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’. There are also echoes of other modern writers such as Robert Edric and The London Satyr, ever hiding an opalescent truth just beyond the reader’s grasp. But it is the musing on stories and Sjón’s evident love of what story can say about ourselves that make the book such a scintillating, sparkling tale. And, as if surmising the power of myth that his work will awake and excite in the reader, the author includes a bibliography of his classical sources at the novel’s end for further investigation. For, after all, all stories beget more stories.