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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