Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head. The most recent has been the Icelander Sjón, whose work is unlike anything I had read, and very exciting. He was born in 1962 and published his first poetry collection when he was fifteen. He was a founder of the neosurrealist group Medúsa. He has published eight novels and books of poetry, plays, and librettos. He writes lyrics for the Icelandic singer Björk and was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark.
I think of Icelanders as erudite, singular, tough, and uncompromising. Sjón is all these things, but he is also quicksilver, playful, and surreal. His pen name is an abbreviation of his full name, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson—Sjón means sight.
Three of his novels have been translated into English—The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale, and The Whispering Muse. They are set in very different historical periods. The Blue Fox is set in the 1880s. It has two main characters—Fridrik Fridjónsson, a naturalist, and Baldur Skuggason, a harsh priest who hunts foxes. Like all Sjón’s work, it contains two worlds at once, which are ultimately the same world—the solid earth (harsh and Icelandic, raging fire under frozen and stormy mountains) and the shape-shifting world of magic and storytelling (also Icelandic). It is Fridjónsson who proclaims in Copenhagen, “I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!”
The narrative appears to be in two separate strands, which at the end join perfectly. Baldur Skuggason sets out to hunt the blue fox in a blizzard. He is implacable and very nasty, yet at some level we simply accept his stolid existence—the pleasure with which he devours a cod’s head, the layers of clothes he wears, his calm when he finds himself imprisoned in a snowdrift. He kills the fox and carries it away in his jacket. She comes back to life and they agree to discuss electricity in a cave—Skuggason believes it is wrong to confine electrical impulses, created by God, in wires. He kills her again while she is distracted. His name mirrors hers—a blue fox in Icelandic is Skugga-Baldur.
Fridjónsson the naturalist is gentle and civilized. He has rescued a “mongoloid” girl who calls herself Abba. At this time such children were suffocated at birth—any who survived were sold into slavery and abused. Abba, in Fridrikson’s care, becomes a naturalist in her own way, collecting Icelandic flora and feathers, inventing a personal language.
From the Mouth of the Whale is set in 1635. This book too is about science, religion, magic, and the way they transform each other. Its hero, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, was a real man whose works and harsh fate Sjón has studied deeply. He lived at…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.