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, such as
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 Fridrik burst into tears.
Because of this difficulty with the language my reaction to the book is quite mixed, but ultimately I can only say that the book is certainly worth reading. The story begins with a hunt for a blue fox by an unnamed man, sparsely narrated in bits of short paragraphs isolated to pages of mostly white space, lending to the sense to the Icelandic-blizzard landscape while maintaining a quietness to the storytelling which allows free reign to the reader’s imagination. It reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea until the hunter’s prey takes on a certain playfully mythic character just before the end of the first part, but before the matter is resolved we are taken back to another character and another narrative. This one is the touching drama of a man grieving the death of his adopted daughter-figure, a girl with Down’s Syndrome. In the third part we return to the hunter, and the story becomes a surreal comedy in the vein of Kafka’s Metamorphosis as he becomes trapped in a cave by a snowdrift. In the end, a not-altogether unpredictable (yet appropriately so) revelation ties the two narratives together.
The Blue Fox is a pretty, touching, funny little book whose translation seems quizzical and maybe a bit frustrating at times, but the story is large enough within its 112 pages that complaints of prosodic trouble-spots would be a poor excuse to pass it over.
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