“Sjón, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before.”

When reading a novel by Sjón, I have often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland.

Previous review: Moonstone - The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón
The Blue Fox, by Sjón, published 2003 by Bjartur; first published in the United States in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Trnslated by Victoria Cribb. Awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Titled “Skugga-Baldur” in Icelandic.
The Blue Fox, by Sjón (Published 2003 by Bjartur; first published in the United States in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Trnslated by Victoria Cribb. Awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Titled Skugga-Baldur in Icelandic.)

The Blue Fox is capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores  and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.

The Iceland where the author lives has an alienness about it in his novels, a strangeness that is hard to comprehend. It is as though he turns the harsh Icelandic landscape and the reputedly tough Icelandic people into creations far more otherworldly than even their Viking ancestors may have been. I prefer, like journalist Charlie Rose, to read new novels “cold” without having studied up on the authors’ writing styles or œuvres beforehand. That way I am largely unbiased. But with Sjón, after having struggled for literally years with one of his earlier novels, The Whispering Muse, I had to resort to reading some interviews with him to make sense of his very short novels or novellas.

The Blue Fox

Arctic fox, alopex lagopus, photo by Mr. Per Harald Olsen
Arctic fox, alopex lagopus, photo by Per Harald Olsen

It is rare to find an arctic fox described as beautifully as in The Blue Fox. It is about the Archdeacon of a small village, “Baldur Skugasson”, who shoots and kills the fox, and pharmacist and botanist “Fridrik Fridjónsson”, who shelters a severely traumatized – raped, tortured and apparently dumb – girl, “Hafdís Jónsdóttir” on his farm. But it is also about the just desserts for cruelty and intolerance. Again, the story is set in specific periods in Icelandic history, 1883 and 1868, and accurately – bluntly – states how Icelanders of that time handled mentally ill and mentally retarded people: they called them “eejits” (idiots) and sent them to live on people’s farms, much to the chagrin of the farmers. (pp. 63 – 64)



Clue to relationship between main characters

The clue of the relationship between Baldur and Fridrik is in the names, the patronymic naming system: In Icelandic, a girl child’s surname or maiden name, is the first name of her father, with “dóttir” (daughter) added on. So Hafdis Jónsdóttir is the daughter of somebody with the first name of Jón. Same for boys, with “son” (son) added on. So, somebody called Fridjónsson is the son of Fridjón. So the clue there is the common name “Jón”. But “John’s daughter” in Icelandic means no more than “Icelander’s daughter” – it’s like “Jane Doe”.

Fridrik finds the mistreated and apparently retarded girl tied up in a chicken coop in the village:
“The figure in the corner became aware of him. She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world. But before he could nod in return, the smile vanished from her face and was at once replaced by a mask so tragic that Fredrik burst into tears.” (p. 58)

The girl, “Abba” – called that because that was the only word she initially spoke – comforts him and croons apparent gibberish “Furru amh-ahm, furru amh-amh”. The reader will only find out right at the end of the story that Abba/Háfdis is not retarded, but was perfectly civilized, religious, and kind, and had developed her own language. Háfdis dies, and Fredrik gives her a suitable burial ceremony, while he passes off a coffin filled with cow dung, rotten planks and a sheep’s skeleton as her corpse to the Archdeacon:

“Ghost-sun is a name given by poets to their friend the moon, and it is fitting tonight when its ashen light bathes the grove of trees that stand in the dip above the farmhouse at Brekka[…] The rowan draws shadow pictures on the snow crust; there’s a low sough in the naked boughs and the odd twig still bears a cluster of dried berries that the birds over-looked last year.” (p. 71)

He buries her and sings to her:

“A summer bird sang
on a sunny day;
Happiness led me,
O’er the airy way
My friend for to see.
The little bird sang
Of its rowan tree.” (p. 74)

Introduction of Surreal element

The archdeacon, shortly after the death and burial of Abba, goes out into the snow and ice to hunt a blue fox. The fox outwits him time and again, but eventually he does shoot it. But he is caught in an avalanche and deposited in a cave and the fox, in one of those Sjón-like shifts from reality to magic – comes to life. “The vixen sprang forth onto the floor of the cave. She spun in a circle, plumped down on her rump – and began to lick herself like a house cat.” (p.96).

The vixen then proceeds to spit out the shot embedded in her from the archdeacon’s shotgun blast, and the two argue about all sorts of things, including religion and electricity. So things are getting surreal. And then the archdeacon kills the vixen again, this time with a knife. He has, in the meantime, recovered from various broken bones, and clad in the skin of the vixen, digs his way through the snow out of the cave. He pricks his ears and sees a fox in heat in the valley far below, and off he goes. The archdeacon has turned into a fox. Or he is dead, or mad, or all three? Why the terrible fate of what seems to be just a stupid hunter?

In the last brief chapter, Fredrik explains in a letter to a friend the horrendous backstory of the archdeacon and Fredrik’s beloved Abba. Also, he explains what “Furru amh-ahm” means: “Furru” means person, “ahmn-ahmn” means beautiful, good. So even in her traumatized state, tied up like a farm animal, Abba had comforted the wealthy, educated Fredrik, calling him a beautiful, good person. What else could he have done but love her?

What else could have befallen the archdeacon but a fate from hell? I got the idea that the laughing, sly and gorgeous blue fox was Abba, taking her own revenge. Which is served cold, in this case, very cold, in the snow.

Next post: The Whispering Muse, by Sjón


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