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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

The Whispering Muse
By Sjón
Translated by Victoria Cribb
Reviewed by Vincent Francone
160 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9780374289072
$22.00
A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >