The Whispering Muse by Sjon

Summary from Goodreads

The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilization, has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea.

Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travelers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel, the Argo, on the Argonauts' quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

Iceland, I remember from an episode of Bizzare Foods with Andrew Zimmern, as this idyllic land with an abundance of natural wonders (and extremely bizarre foods). Hot springs, geysers, volcanoes, glaciers. They even gave it the name, the land of fire and ice (which is very appropriate because guess where they shoot parts of Game of Thrones?) So this land, I mistakenly assumed, would be populated by ice fishermen, or puffin hunters, or Lady Sif and the Warrior Three. But it turns out, as per BBC's research, one in ten Icelandic people will publish a book. "Ad ganga med bok I maganum." Everyone gives birth to a book. In fact, Unesco has named Reykjavik as the City of Literature. And the richest and most famous in Iceland are writers...and Bjork. This tiny little country also happens to have more books read than any other. This is just amazing.

Okay so my prattling about Iceland is not without merit, because Sjon is a resident of Reykjavic and The Whispering Muse has been deemed as Iceland's Best Novel for 2005. And it is a tale that's beguiling as much as it is baffling. The story alternates between Valdimar Haradlsson talking about fish consumption and the apparent lack of it on the ship's menu, and Caeneus (yes, the Greek myth hero) regaling the crew with adventure stories of his time aboard Argo. Pescetarianism and mythology, with such an unlikely and confounding pairing and topic, you can expect a bit of freewheeling quality to this book. There is the tendency for the story to be formless and bizarre at times. And certain events are left hanging, never to be touched upon even until the end of the book. 

Sjon though,  is an excellent fabulist and storyteller. With Caeneus' tales, he recreated a mythology of his own, a mash up of sorts of Greek, Icelandic and Nordic. But Valdimar Haradlsson can hold his own. He huffs, puffs and harumphs his way through the Black Sea, it is hilarious. He is one of those scholarly types who have the tendency to assume everyone else is equally interested in his chosen field of study. He becomes extremely peeved when the crew would rather hear Caeneus' tales of dashing and daring than his seafood speeches. 

But the best thing about this book is Sjon's writing (but credit has to be given to Victoria Cribb's excellent translation.) It is poetic and lyrical. Almost like music. Which is to be expected since he is a frequent collaborator of Bjork. And his droll and wry humor cuts sharp into the narrative which proved to be such a pleasant surprise. I have a feeling Sjon is such a cool guy. In the first place, how could you not be, with a name like that. It's like Cher or Madonna. Although, all those events left to hang nagged at me. But all in all The Whispering Muse mirrors Sjon's coolness and ends with a twinkle in it's eye.  


  1. I feel like the novel would make for a very interesting surrealistic film. I can already imagine it. Sjon has such a firm grasp on imagery and lyricism but not so much on structure which I think worked against the novella. It was still such an interesting read though.

    1. I know right? I had trouble with the structure. All those bits of events in the narrative left undone. And yeah, this might better serve as a movie. I don't know many surreal film makers. Oh! I propose this be Darren Aronofsky's redemption movie, after the thing that was Noah. Haha. :)

    2. I can very much imagine this as a Luis Bunuel film or maybe Alan Resnais. Basically any filmmaker who can make the lack of structure as an advantage. :D

  2. I think it's a statement (of what?) if a celebrity doesn't have a last name. Madonna what? Bjork what? Sjon what? Well, I bought a couple of his books (The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale) a couple of months back because I vividly remembering enjoying Icelandic novels (to be exact, two Halldor Laxness novels).

    1. True. A statement of coolness perhaps? Or rockstar status? That they are above us, mere mortals, who need two names. Haha. And Halldor Laxness is already on my list. I wonder though if there is a some sort of trademark in Icelandic writing? Does Laxness write similarly to Sjon? Like is he big on lyricism?


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