The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb

Whispering MuseThe Whispering Muse by Icelandic poet, songwriter and novelist Sjón, known for his collaborations with Björk and winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize (equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for this novel, was the first book I chose to read for the New year.

I chose it because it’s by an Icelandic author and because it delves into the realm of myth and fable, Alberto Manguel called it:

“an extraordinary, powerful fable – a marvel.”

I loved this gem of a book, which demanded much more from the reader wanting true fulfilment, than the mere 143 pages it was written on.

It is an invitation to embark on the adventures of The Argonauts, as told by the second mate Caeneus, who while voyaging on a ship in 1949 narrates his previous adventures on the ship Argo under Captain Jason in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

“Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver. He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro.”

Not being familiar with the epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC) I diverged off course to familiarise myself with its plot, and some of the named characters mentioned, as the book is full of mythological literary references that make a pleasant and fulfilling divergence in its reading, not least of which we learn why Caeneus has much respect for wood, though more is revealed on its significance later.

Set in 1949 as an elderly, eccentric Icelandic man is invited by the father of one of the fans of his work on Nordic culture and fish consumption, to embark on a voyage at sea from Copenhagen to the Black Sea, he recounts his journey as he sees it, while learning about the grand voyage of Caeneus and his many transformations.

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The sources quoted on the last page provide a link to the ancient sparks that ignited the imagination of Sjón. Familiarity with The Argonauts, Medea, Hypsipyle and Metamorphoses would benefit, but the story is equally accessible with superficial knowledge of those stories.

Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, what more could one ask for from a book read on the 1st day of the new year 2016.

I scribbled more notes in the margin than I have every done before and I’m still wondering whether the old man might have had a mild dementia, as the latter part of the book has him witnessing some strange, unaccounted for events. Nothing is ever as it seems and a reader’s imagination can contribute as much to the story as one wishes.

“I was thinking: could the voice you detect in the humming of the wood be your own voice? Like the poet who obstinately believes that he is writing about the world but is in reality only telling yet another story about himself?”

18 thoughts on “The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb

  1. Funny, I was just looking at my little stack of Sjón’s books tonight (I have only read one of the three) and thinking I should be sure to pull one out. I had the opportunity to hear him read and meet him a year ago and he has one of the driest sense of humour around (my favourite kind).

    I have been deeply immersed in reading a large, demanding work for an outside review which would be fine if I wasn’t coping with a litany of demands on my time and energy from my father’s illness, a broken down car and most recently a burst hot water pipe! When I get through my current commitment I plan to stick to nothing but short works for a while. I feel like everyone else is busy writing and reviewing while I feel like I have been reading the same book forever!

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    • What a joy to have two Sjón’s on the shelf as a reward for getting through the current book. I was really happy to start the year with a slim volume too, that I chose for no other reason than anticipated pleasure and it was even more rewarding than I had expected, as it sent me off looking up other stories as well. Which two do you still have to read? and what did you think of the one you read? How fabulous to have listened to him speak, no wonder you’re a fan!

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      • I read The Blue Fox, a lovely afternoon length read (even for slow me), so I have The Whispering Muse and From the Mouth of the Whale (all signed too!). I believe there is another translation coming maybe this year. Talking to him was fun. We are about the same age and grew up in rather isolated areas in the 60’s and 70’s. We both had exactly the same experience of first imagining that all the music and movies we encountered were made locally until one day you recognize your isolation and think “Absolutely nothing cool comes from here!”

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  2. Sounds excellent, Claire. Was this your first by Sjón? If so, you might be interested in another of his books, The Blue Fox. It’s quite poetic in style, almost like a folktale or fable in some respects.

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  3. The members of one of my book groups were saying at the last meeting that we ought to read more in translation. We are meant to be reading novels that are shortlisted for major awards. Well, there is nothing to say that they have to be British awards, so maybe we should try this.

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    • It’s the perfect candidate, it won a major literary award and is likely to spark an interesting conversation, though readers ought to be warned that they may have to do some additional reading if not familiar with The Argonauts, but it’s hardly taxing to read the plot summary in Wikipedia and makes reading it much more fun to be able to identify the literary references. I do hope they accept!

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  4. Pingback: Masks by Fumiko Enchi tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter #WITMonth – Word by Word

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