One From the Archive: ‘The Whispering Muse’ by Sjon ***

Sjón’s The Whispering Muse is more of a novella than a novel, filling just 143 pages. The author is a celebrated poet and novelist in his native Iceland, and his books have been translated into twenty five languages to date. The Whispering Muse won the award for best Icelandic novel in 2005, and has recently been translated into English by Victoria Cribb.

The novel, which has been heralded by such authors as Alberto Manguel and David Mitchell as ‘a marvel’ and ‘a lovingly published gem of a novel’ respectively, opens in 1949 and takes place over a relatively short period of time. Its protagonist is an Icelandic man named Valdimar Haraldsson, who is rather an eccentric character from the start. He is twenty seven years old when the story begins, and states his ‘chief preoccupation’ as ‘the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race’.

One of the few men who believe Valdimar’s theory, that the Nordic diet of fish makes the race ‘superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean’, is a Danish shipbroker named Hermann Jung-Olsen. Hermann, ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’, is described as ‘a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work’. After his untimely death, Hermann’s father, Magnus, invites Valdimar on a cruise on one of the Jung-Olsen family’s own liners, from Copenhagen to Norway, and then on to İzmit in Turkey.

The second mate of the ship is the mythical hero Caeneus, working in disguise. Each night after supper he weaves stories for those present, apparently striking his inspiration from a piece of wood chipping which he holds close to his ear. He tells of his adventures aboard a ship named the Argo, which Valdimar deems to be ‘fascinating stuff for the most part, if a little on the racy side’. The interwoven story is inventive, and Sjón has struck just the right balance in his telling of the tales of Valdimar and Caeneus. The concept is a clever one.

A good mixture of sentence structure has been used throughout The Whispering Muse, particularly with regard to the balance between short and long sentences. Valdimar’s first person narrative voice is strong, and he comes across as a likeable character from the outset. His narrative is light and relatively informal, and his style is a chatty one. Sjón’s character descriptions too are rather inventive and often amusing. The purser of the ship, for example, is ‘a likeable chap, despite an inability to pronounce his ‘r’s’. The story does feel rather factually heavy at times, particularly when such elements as freight weights and the intricacies of the paper making process are included.

Where the writing style is concerned, the majority of the book has been very well captured in translation. The author’s descriptions work incredibly well, particularly those of the sea, and a real sense of place is created when the liner first reaches Norway. Caeneus’ dialogue is nothing short of poetic for the most part. The only downside to Cribb’s interpretation of the text is the way in which several of the phrases used do sound rather clumsy – ‘when we made landfall on the island’, for example.

On the whole, the story is a clever one, but elements of the bizarre creep in throughout. The ending of the book does sadly seem a little abrupt, particularly where Valdimar’s transformation as a character is concerned. Still, The Whispering Muse is a must-read for anyone interested in mythology and fables, or those who merely wish to expand their knowledge of contemporary Icelandic literature.

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