“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, and in this case, Denmark.

Previous review: The Blue Fox, by Sjón
The Whispering Muse, by Sjón. This edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 6, 2014. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Originally published in Icelandic as “Argóarflísin” by Bjartur, 2005.
The Whispering Muse, by Sjón. (Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 6, 2014;  translated by Victoria Cribb; originally published in Icelandic as Argóarflísin by Bjartur, 2005.)

Sjón stands out for me as an author who has captured the essence of Iceland. But more than that, he creates an odd, alternate view of it. His novels are more than just about Iceland, they create a wonder, a puzzlement about the world and its meaning by injecting an unexpected element of strangeness into the everyday. And his “everyday”, the “normal” settings, are described in such a way that they are tantalizingly exotic and desirable, for instance, bales of off-white papers moving on a cable across the water, like big flakes of snow – with a dead hand hanging out of it which appears in The Whispering Muse.

Sjón’s use of language is economical, but every word is packed with meaning, but he frequently inserts surreal or exotic elements into what appears to be short, plain and straightforward narratives.

The Whispering Muse

In this novel, the reader should expect:

  • Economical use of language
  • Complex, multiple themes
  • Elements of Surrealism
  • Something essentially Icelandic, and
  • A short but hugely impressive creation

In The Whispering Muse, the modern-day first-person narrator is “Valdimar Haraldsson”, who is something of a pompous ass who has spent his life obsessed with the connection between fish and the superiority of Nordic Culture, and was the publisher of an obscure publication on that subject. The elderly Haraldsson gets a trip on a voyage of a Danish merchant vessel, courtesy of a wealthy benefactor. He is a pretty pedantic fellow, and thinks nothing of lecturing to others, being convinced of his own importance. He dutifully records the everyday happenings on the vessel, on which he is the only non-commercial passenger. He does not notice that, right off the bat, the whole thing is odd. He is, for one, in a luxurious two-room cabin. And, oddest yet, the first mate, called “Caeneus”, is the story-teller or chief entertainer at the captain’s table every night. Caeneus gets his inspiration by holding up a small piece of wood to his ear. The wood whispers to him, so it seems, and it is the “Whispering Muse” of the book title.

Is this man really the immortal Caeneus or Caenis, of Greek Mythology, who sailed with Jason and his Argonauts on the Argo? Or is he just a guy entertaining the passengers? Of course, the former is impossible, or is it?

The fable of Caeneus and sea-tales

Ovid told the fable or legend of Caeneus in his Ancient Greek work Metamorphoses. According to legend, Caeneus sailed with the captain of the most famous battleship ever, Jason, on the ship Argo, with his crew the argonauts. (Remember Jason and the Golden Fleece?) Caenis was born a woman who was abducted and raped by the god Poseidon after which Poseidon was pleased and promised to grant Caenis a wish. (Phew. Horrible story.) Caenis was so distraught that she demanded to be changed into a man, so that she might never be wronged again. Poseidon granted this wish, and also gave Caenis impenetrable skin. Thereafter, the spelling of Caenis was changed to Caeneus to mark his transformation. Caeneus, as the sailor on the modern vessel reveals, was originally a woman, Caenis, made immortal by the gods with an impenetrable skin, and when she or he couldn’t be killed, his enemies drove him into the ground like a tree-trunk, but he escaped as a golden-winged bird.

There are many sea-going myths and legends of the ancient world that have now been preserved as narrative poems or sagas in modern languages and are part of the canon of Western literature. These include the poems of the Vikings, Greeks and Saxons, for example Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, about the hero Odysseus and his adventures at sea, the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, famously interpreted in English by Erza Pound, the Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red (c.1220-1280), or early European travel narratives like Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages (1589).

Sea-tales, especially for island nations and the descendants of peoples that conquered the world by crossing the sea, like the Vikings, are reflections of history and also an integral part of the Weltanschauung of a people, their way of looking at the world. In the same way that the lyrics of the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men primarily are about the sea, ships, mythological monsters, etc., they also have something of the resoluteness, gravity and introspection of the Icelandic spirit.

“When you live in a country which moves alarmingly under your feet every five years or so with an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, you face, like the saga heroes of old, a choice of two courses of action, neither of them good: Either to flee the country and all its hazards, or to stay and brave them out. For more than 1100 years the people of Iceland have chosen to stay and brave them out.” (Magnús Magnússon, Reykjavík, September 2001)

Of course, you need not know all this to figure out, about halfway through the book, that something is not quite right on this voyage.

Introduction of Surrealism

The Argo, by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907).
The Argo, painting by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907)

As the novel progresses, it looks more and more as if the narrator is sailing on the reincarnation or incarnation of the mythical ship Argo, and that the captain is not himself but Jason, and the talkative first mate is the mythical Caeneus. As the modern-day vessel runs into difficulties, small but worrisome nevertheless, so the tale that the first mate tells at dinner reaches its pinnacle – the Argo is rediscovered as a wreck in the ships’ graveyard in Corinth, Jason is so decrepit he has lost his mind, and Caeneus, well….

“Caeneus shrank away from this terrible revelation. He called Jason’s name, called his own name, called on Hermes to free his tongue from its fetters, but all the son of Aeson [Jason] could see and hear was a herring gull squawking on a rock. Caeneus craned his neck, cocked his head back and screeched: “Arrk, arrk! Ga-ga-ga-ga! Arrk, arrk…” (p. 95)

But the ship still has a voice, and speaks to Jason:

“Take me away. Sail me out to sea, the blue sea, where Poseidon shakes his trident at bold seafarers who steer their ships through the mountainous waves as if they were thunderbolts from the hand of supreme Zeus.” (p. 97)

Caeneus breaks off his story when he recounts how “he” reverted to a being a bird (“It was I, Ceaneus.”) and Jason and his crew left the island of Lemnos where they had been “servicing” the rapacious women, the only inhabitants. On p. 129, the passengers toast the Jung-Olsen family and the Kronos shipping line, since Haraldsson has decided to go home. The next paragraph, he returns to his quarters and his room has gone missing. The bathroom had become an armoury with ancient weapons and a mighty suit of armour on a stand. A page later, when he flees the room to look for the crew, he finds them in the engine room, in white coats, seeing to the ship’s clockwork (?!) engine, something so absurd as to trigger the suspension of disbelief in the reader: the captain sees him and says:

“The old man will sleep there tonight. It’ll take Caeneus till noon to wind up the ship.” (p. 134).

Then Sjón skips directly the next scene in which Haraldsson is home again – no explanation of how he got home and what happened to the ship, and one could imagine he had had some kind of mental breakdown. But he is a changed man – his girlfriend calls him a “Viking” and;

“One sign that I am an altered man is that I have changed the topic of my conversation at Café Sommerfugl. I haven’t entirely given up discussing the influence of seafood on the Nordic race but I spend less time discoursing on this and more on the fittings on board the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.” (p. 137)

And he has got his hands on the sliver of wood that had been the Muse of ship’s mate Caeneus – the piece of wood that could have come from the Argo, the piece of wood that has aphrodisiacal powers (as it had empowered the sailors when they landed amongst the sex-starved islanders of Lemnos). And his relationship with his neighbour is no longer platonic – nope, the wood sliver turns him into a fine lover. Only occasionally, a herring gull sits on his windowsill and complains, Arrk!, and he chases it away. It might be Caeneus wanting his Muse back.

What more can one say – the questions and possibilities raised in this novel have no answers. They sit in the reader’s mind like icebergs in a fjord – grinding away at each other and at any sensible answers that drift their way. But that’s the fun of reading Sjón.

Next post: From the Mouth of the Whale, by Sjón


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