31 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Since I (Chad) used this book in my class this spring, I thought I’d write it up for the series. Hi.



Moonstone by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 62%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%

Given Iceland’s population, it’s almost shocking that forty-six Icelandic works of fiction and poetry have been published in English translation since 2008. Over that time period, more books have been translated from Icelandic than from Czech. Or from Greek, Hungarian, or Flemish. In fact, there have been as many books translated from the Icelandic as there have from Hindi, Latvian, Persian, and Yiddish combined.

Sure, 10% of all Icelanders will publish a book over the course of their lifetime, providing a pretty solid pool of titles for publishers to choose from, but still—why Iceland?

Last summer, the Icelandic men’s soccer team took the world by storm, becoming the beloved Cinderella side of the Euro Cup. They rolled into the semifinals behind a slightly disconcerting nationalistic celebration, a feisty style of play fed by a “what do we have to lose?” underdog mentality, and some incredibly fun Twitter taunts from The Grapevine, Reykjavik’s English language paper.





Iceland was having its moment.

But then again, Iceland’s been having its moment for decades.

Björk. Sigur Rós. Múm. Of Monsters and Men. The Blue Lagoon. Skyr. Northern Lights. Renewable energy. Women’s Rights. Jón Gnarr’s mayorship. Damon Albarn’s bar. The fifth gait of an Icelandic horse. Fermented shark and Brennivén. Cheap flights to Europe if you stay overnight in Iceland. There are dozens of things about Iceland that make it really cool, that have made it an incredibly hip place to visit, or culture to import. (Except maybe the shark and Brennivén. Iceland can keep those.)

Although all of this interest in Iceland and Icelandic culture seems like a boon, there is an underlying tension at play. This is an island nation after all, one that, for most of its early history, was more or less cut off from the rest of the world, floating in the middle of nowhere. Its culture is uniquely Icelandic because it was able to develop on its own, somewhat removed from globalizing trends. Reykjavik is the only capital in western Europe without a McDonald’s or a Starbucks—almost all the restaurants and shops originated in Iceland.

This tension between being separate from the rest of the world while also wanting to participate in global culture plays itself out in Sjón’s most recent novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.

The novel centers on Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone), a young, gay boy who was born in the island’s leper colony, and who is obsessed with the movies. Moonstone has more of a plot than some of Sjón’s earlier books, but it’s still somewhat secondary to the poetic writing and atmosphere of the novel. A Danish ship arrives bringing the Spanish flu, and lots of people die, especially those who congregated at the movie theater. Máni Steinn also falls ill, giving Sjón the opportunity to show off his musical abilities in a three-chapter fever dream awash in symbolism, gray ooze, and body parts.

The toe of the shoe is thrust out from beneath the skirt and stamped down with such force that the floor creaks. Gray slime wells up between the boards. The air grows thick with the stench of rotting fish.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The hands reappear. The figure flings a pair of eyebrows onto the lid. Pain lacerates the boy. He raises a hand to his forehead, but it is shaking too much for him to feel whether his own brows are still there.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The figure withdraws its hands inside its clothes.

—A little closer, dear, a little closer . . .

The gramophone voice buzzes inside the wooden box.

The sense of danger from the outside pervades the novel, not just in relation to the actual, literal infection that the Danes bring with them on their ship, but also in the corrupting power of foreign films. Dr. Garibaldi Árnason details this in a mini-manifesto:

_In the same fashion, the cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen, and whether it is the curve of Asta Nielsen’s back, Theda Bara’s naked shoulders, Pina Menichelli’s sensual eyelids [. . .] the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer’s existence and etch itself into his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them.

Film is thus immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame.

The doctor’s viewpoint is brought into even sharper view after Máni is caught with another man:

—It’s clear that the lad is not like other people . . . a homosexual [. . .] Hardly any cases known in this country . . . hasn’t become established . . . will proliferate if . . . My theory . . . a word of warning . . . men are rendered more susceptible to homosexuality by overindulgence in films . . .

I’m definitely oversimplifying this book, but reading Moonstone shortly after Gudbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, I’ve become fixed on the ways in which these books address the complexities of Iceland in the world, and, more specifically, of the idea of the “Icelandic Man.” Although using vastly different approaches, both novels open up a space through which to examine these tensions.

That’s why I think Moonstone deserves the Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

26 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.



Small in size and epic in scale, Moonstone is Sjón’s fourth novel to be translated into English from the Icelandic. The setting is 1918 Reykjavik and besides a Europe on the cusp of war, a global influenza epidemic has reached the city. Mani Steinn, the main character, is a young man attempting to survive the threats, both seen and unseen, which arrive from every direction of the city and world. Steinn is also a homesexual at a time when being queer was not only unacceptable, it was unfathomable. Steinn finds solace and companionship in the quiet escape of movies, their titles sprinkled cleverly throughout the novel that make clever nods to periods of time as well as art movements.

The cinemas themselves are seen as breeding grounds for corrupting the imagination of the young as well as eventually becoming sites of the flu contagion itself. The writing is lucid and sharp, and the translation by Victoria Cribb elegant and restrained. It was the first Sjón novel I had read and I found it particularly moving. Certain scenes from the book, fumigating a cinema with chlorine, the main characters sheathed in black, stayed with me for weeks. As well as powerful, Moonstone is an exercise in precision, never falling into pretension when it would be all too easy.

Mixing sex and history, even cinema, Moonstone is an inspiring novel that explores the ways dreams and imagination inform our realities while quietly showing a Europe on the edge of apocalypse. Although fiction, the book is something very personal to the author and which only announces itself on the final page. Wonderful indeed.

18 November 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Amanda Nelson, managing editor of Book Riot. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I once heard a theory that the American South (where I live) has such a higher crime rate than the rest of the country because of the weather. That because it’s so hot and muggy and disgusting here for so much of the year, people are extra on-edge, extra cranky, extra mean and prone to lashing out. There’s so much that’s nonsensical and completely not based in fact about the idea, of course, but it stuck with me. Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with cold weather whodunits. What would make someone commit a violent crime in a place with such soothing, cool, dark weather? Where you could, instead of hurting someone, sit in a cozy sweater and drink a beer?

When the books started rolling in for the BTBA judging, I snatched up the Northern European murder mysteries first. It’s hard to write a noteworthy one after the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that isn’t stopping anyone from trying. And while cold weather murder mysteries have a reputation for being very Which Pretty Young Girl Is Going To Be Murdered Next (hello, Dragon Tattoo influence), that hasn’t really been the case with this year’s crop:

Ice Queen by Nele Neuhaus, translated by Steven T. Murray

The body of a 92 year old Holocaust survivor is found in his home after he’s been shot, execution style. When his autopsy is performed, a blood marker tattoo for Hitler’s SS is found on his arm. Soon after, two similar murders of elderly people occur, and investigators realize all the victims are friends of one wealthy baroness who fled the second World War. Now she’s an elderly philanthropist and matriarch of her old family. The investigators follow the murderer’s trail back to the end of WWII and into Poland. The sleight-of-hand here is pretty heavy: you’re so focused on the obvious choice for the murderer that you don’t see the real one coming at all . . . to the point that you might feel a little cheated. But still an interesting read, especially for history buffs.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb

The Inspector Erlendur series is famous already, and this prequel takes us back to a look at Erlendur as a newbie detective. This one also has a victim who isn’t a pretty dead girl (yay, let’s stop doing that altogether!) and is instead a homeless, alcoholic middle-aged man. Erlendur comes to recognize the man after he runs into him a few times while patrolling the city at night, and when he’s found dead, Erlendur is the only person who cares enough to find out if it was foul play. He chases his leads into the underbelly of Reykjavik to find out the truth. This one is a slow build: there’s no big car chases to speak of, no real glamour or ultra-violence. But that’s what I appreciated about it—it’s a good lazy Sunday book.

The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel

A political aide raised in the middle of nowhere in the Swedish archipelago by her grandparents (she’s an orphan) discovers a secret via an old lover. An aging, worn out spy who abandoned his newborn baby after watching her mother die in order to keep his cover wrestles with his past by doing laps all day in the swimming pool. When the political aide has to go on the run and the old spy finds out who she is (you can guess, surely), the two of them run for their lives across Europe. It’s a Bourne-style adventure without the amnesia, but with the thrills and political intrigue. This one is a dash of WHOdunit, with a sprinkling of whichCOUNTRYdunit, or whichCORPORATIONdunit. Thrillers are so often about what a spy’s life is like in the thick of it, it was refreshing to encounter one nearing the end of his tenure.

13 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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!

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Whispering Muse by Sjón, from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The first time I saw The Whispering Muse was in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, misplaced somewhere on the D-F shelf. Taking this as a sign of meant-to-be, I bought it, and promptly placed it on my to-read shelf. This was two years ago. But I’ve been itching to get to it since! And the new editions from FSG have some pretty awesome looking covers…

Here’s a bit of Vincent’s review:

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

To read the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

The year is 1949, a fact quickly established by the primary narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, Icelandic fish enthusiast and quasi-eugenicist. Haraldsson boards the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant ship bound for the Black Sea, and encounters Caeneus, first mate and former Argonaut who, yes, sailed under Jason during his infamous quest for the Golden Fleece. This, regardless of the fact that the year is, again, 1949. This is the kind of book where none of those pesky rules of time and space carry any weight. Caeneus entertains the guests of the ship with after-dinner stories of his adventures with the Argonauts while stalled on the island of Lemnos amid comely enchantresses.

Caeneus’s inspiration comes from a splinter of wood he carries in his pocket—the titular whispering muse— a remnant of the long gone Argo. The mighty ship reduced to a mere splinter seems a good metaphor for the ethereal, the history lingering in our memories, the tiny specter that inspires and haunts all of us, but I suspect such readings are perhaps too heady for such a playful novel. Not to diminish any interpretive reading of The Whispering Muse, but I’m far happier savoring the goofy jumps from Caeneus’s story to Haraldsson’s absurd lecture on the superiority of the Nordic people, which he attributes to their fish consumption, than in picking it apart for deeper meaning. Perhaps this is because the novel’s breezy tone and brevity prevent me from looking at it as anything more than entertaining fabulism. The seafaring novel is constantly moving, sailing across narratives and landing nowhere near where I expected, instead stopping abruptly. A longer novel might have meandered, but Sjón keeps it slim and quick, a short effective burst of whimsy and surprise.

Despite the fun The Whispering Muse provides while reading—and it is a lot of fun—it was difficult to completely immerse myself in the book. Lyrical at times and certainly engaging, I was nevertheless detached from the events of the novel, witnessing them from afar. Critics of framed narratives sometimes complain of the frustration that can accompany distancing stories inside stories. Typically I do not agree, but here I sense that Sjón doesn’t necessarily care about his characters, which makes me wonder why I would invest anything in them. There are passages that amuse and delight, but the joy comes from the idea of what is happening rather than what is actually happening. This is not to say that the book is unsuccessful, but those who are looking for rich characterization need not crack open The Whispering Muse. Thankfully, I am less concerned with characters are more interested in the possibilities of the novel, which Sjón presents in 141 taut pages, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Larissa Kyzer on LoveStar by Andri Snær Magnason, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published by Seven Stories Press.

Larissa is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and with this continues her streak of Nordic lit reviews. LoveStar is a book I’ve been casting sidelong glances at here in the office, and have it high on my list of to-reads. But, with influences such as “Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut to George Orwell, Douglas Adams, and Monty Python,” Magnason is sure to please.

Here’s a bit from Larissa’s review:

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Head over here for the entire review.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Then comes the dawn of the “the cordless man,” who can both communicate and be communicated to through entirely internal methods:

bq.When men in suits talked to themselves out on the streets and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge . . . and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio.

None of this, of course, is too great an exaggeration on technology that has come into being in the last decade, and even the absurd advertising methods that quickly become the norm in the world of LoveStar feel accurate. People in debt can rent out their brains’ speech centers out and become “howlers,” automatically screeching advertisements or reminders at specific passersby (“I can’t believe that guy is still wearing a Blue Millets anorak!” or “_Dallas_ is starting!”). “Secret hosts” are hired by companies to go around surreptitiously selling their friends products within everyday conversations. And everything—from birth to love to death—is monetized and monopolized by one gigantic corporation and its subsidiaries: LoveStar.

All of this, it bears noting, is just prologue and backdrop to the novel’s main focus: such is the sheer density of the world that Andri Snær creates within just the first few chapters. There are two main plots that overlap, somewhat achronologically. One follows the executive LoveStar himself in the last hours of his life (Andri Snær has likened the character to Steve Jobs; another reviewer saw Kári Stefánson, the founder of deCODE Genetics). The other plot follows the repeatedly thwarted attempts of a young couple, Indridi and Sigrid, trying to evade the corporate machinations that would break them apart from one another and re-pair them with their supposedly scientifically verifiable perfect partner.

There is a lot going on—arguably a little too much, as some of the larger themes get somewhat lost in the sweep of the (literally) explosive climax, or are, in some cases, grandly dramatized, but done so with little finesse. Though overall, it’s compulsively readable, due in great part to Andri Snær’s kooky creativity and the novel’s simple, straightforward style of prose (credit here to translator Victoria Cribb, who has translated, among others, three novels by Sjón and Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree).

Read today—in the wake of not only myriad technological advances, but also a worldwide financial meltdown the consequences of which were profoundly felt in Iceland, and will continue to be so for probably decades to come— LoveStar feels a bit like cracking open a time capsule. Its world is poised on the edge of implosion, held in check by only the tiniest bit of better judgement. “If we don’t do it,” LoveStar remarks before embarking on one last, ruinous power quest, “someone else will.”

4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, which Victoria Cribb translated from the Icelandic and is available from Telegram Books.

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize (the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for The Blue Fox, which was also longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009. Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for the song lyrics he wrote for Björk in the film Dancer in the Dark and has been working on Björk’s latest project, Biophilia. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages.

Here is part of his review:

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

Click here to read the entire review.

4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

One of the most obvious motifs in the novel is myth. Variations on standard mythology abound in the text. The novel begins with a retelling of the story of the fall of Lucifer. Later, it introduces a variation on the Garden of Eden story and the origin of Eve. In a sense, the entire story of Jonas could be viewed as a re-imagining of the story of Jonah. After all, the two characters, Jonas and Jonah have nearly the same name, they both have sailors try to throw them off boats in order to appease a storm, and, toward the end of their stories, they both get eaten by whales. Mythology is also contrasted with knowledge in the book, though the two subjects are not presented as opposites. It is clear that Jonas, a poet and man of myth, and his wife Sigridur, an amateur astronomer and woman of science, both express a similar basic desire for knowledge; indeed, knowledge and myth often boil down to the same thing, as they both seek to explain the way the world works. Jonas’ major scientific achievement, the classification of the flora and fauna of Iceland, is a curious mix of magical properties and concrete descriptions. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that it provokes reflection on the difference between mythology and knowledge, for in the period in history this novel portrays there does not seem to be any difference at all.

In addition to the little myths that pepper the book, there are longer myths that deal explicitly with the problem of depravity. For Lucifer, man’s creation is a depravity. For Adam, his shadow is a depravity. For Jonas, the behavior of the ruling powers in Iceland is a depravity. Depravity exists in the world of this book, and it’s a central problem – so what does one do about it? By dealing so centrally with this question, Sjón’s work is in much the same genre as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and The Book of Jonah. Like those other two important works, From the Mouth of the Whale doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers; its main virtue lies in challenging existing ones. Disengagement, one of the strategies Jonas pursues, doesn’t work for him, and he ends up wasting his life and ruining that of his wife. Poetry, myth, and reportage make up Jonas’ other strategy, and it seems to be much more promising. By recording the wrongs that he has seen the rulers of Iceland perpetuate, Jonas manages to keep some of his dignity and self-respect. The second strategy may not provide a perfect answer to the question of how to respond to the world’s depravity, since it surely doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Still, it seems to be the best answer that From the Mouth of the Whale proposes.

Even though the book would have had a neater finish if the author had managed to figure out a definitive solution to the problem of evil, it’s not exactly a fair to fault him for it. By provoking thought about big questions, and doing it in such an elegant and engaging manner, Sjón has written a book that is quite brilliant.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.

Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:

I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.

Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”

And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]

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