"The Whispering Muse" by Sjón [Why This Book Should Win]
We’re down to the last three longlisted titles, so we’re going to have to cram these in before Tuesday morning’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists. I’ll be writing the first two, Bromance Will will bring it home tomorrow evening.
The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)
It’s not surprising that Sjón’s books read like musical compositions. A lyricist, member of the board of the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and sometime singer, Sjón has been involved in Iceland’s amazingly creative music scene for some time now. In my opinion, this is why his earlier novel The Blue Fox works so well. The prose is concise, the voices play off each other incredibly well, and the book’s underlying architecture help it to do more in 100 pages than most authors pull off in 300+.
The Whispering Muse is a different sort of book: there’s a stronger, more linear plot (in 1949, Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander obsessed with the influence of eating fish on the Nordic peoples, is on a boat with Caeneus, who entertains the passengers of the boat with his stories of the Argo and retrieving the Golden Fleece); the passages are a bit longer, less immediately poetic; and it’s a bit funnier. That said, it’s distinctly Sjónian.
Most of the humor derives from the fussy speeches of Valdimar Haraldsson, former editor of Fisk og Kultur and author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, who just won’t stop talking about how a diet rich in fish is the recipe for Nordic superiority:
In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish. And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms. [. . .] The same was true of the aboriginal settlers of Scandinavia, who followed the edge of the ice sheet when the great glacier began to retreat at the waning of the Ice Age. Instead of following in the footsteps of the herbivores and the predators that preyed on them, they kep tot eh seashore, benefiting from the easy access to food.
It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and shore are endowed.
Vadimar is a great protagonist/narrator precisely because he’s such a drag to listen to and be around. He’s funny—in a pathetic sort of way—but also annoying as shit. (Which is why everyone would rather listen to Caeneus’s tale.) That’s a hard thing to pull off, and one solid reason why Sjón deserves this year’s BTBA.
A lot of the other reasons I think this should win are personal. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I love Iceland and would give anything to retire there (or start Open Letter’s Reykjavik office). Great people, music, books, and hamburgers. What more does one need?
And Sjón? One of the kindest, most down-to-earth, wonderful writers I’ve ever met. He was responsible for getting Can Xue into the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to give him this award.
Plus, this was the only “original” book of the three that FSG brought out last year, a publishing plan that helped launch his career in the States and ensures that his future books will be desired and supported by a healthy group of fans. The matching covers and simultaneous release was a bold move on the part of FSG, and I love to see an innovative, literary press get rewarded for things like this. So, go Iceland!