Thursday, 28 June 2012

Divine Inspiration from the Frozen North

One of the discoveries of my recent sojourn into shadow judging was the eventual winner of our parallel prize, Sjón, the Icelandic author of the excellent From the Mouth of the Whale.  Having heard that he had another book out in English soon, I crossed my fingers and sent out a begging e-mail (which isn't easy with crossed fingers, let me tell you), hoping for a review copy.  Luckily, Telegram Books took pity on me and my sore fingers and sent me a lovely copy of the new book, The Whispering Muse - and a very good one it is too :)

The rather slender volume, coming in at a delicate 143 pages, chronicles events from 1949, when a rather interesting character, Valdimar Haraldsson, an academic with a monomania linking the superiority of the Nordic races with frequent fish consumption, is invited to take a trip.  As a personal favour, he is to be allowed on a cargo ship carrying paper pulp from Norway to Istanbul, relaxing in a luxurious cabin on a cruise which will take some weeks.  On the first evening of the journey, he is invited to dine at the captain's table, and it is here that he meets an even more fascinating man for the first time - Caeneus: second mate of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen and survivor of the good ship Argo...

Each evening, once the dinner utensils have been cleared away, the imposing figure (all six foot nine of him) slowly takes a small splinter of wood from his pocket, listens to it intently for a while, then proceeds to relate the next instalment of his adventures aboard the ship Jason commanded on his quest to reclaim the Golden Fleece.  The small group of officers and workers on the ship listen spellbound to the tales the impressive Caeneus spins, stories of a visit the Argonauts paid to an island inhabited only by women.  Inspired by the scrap of wood, said to be a relic of the old ship, the mate and his whispering muse entertain and enthral his listeners during their enforced delay in Norway.

Haraldsson is initially confused by the respect his fellow passengers show the burly seaman, but eventually he comes to admire his figure and dignity too.  Too full of himself and his own theories though, he sees the nightly tales as idle amusement - until, that is, he begins to feel that there may just be a connection to his own life.  Perhaps Caeneus is telling the stories just for him...

Anyone who has tried From the Mouth of the Whale will know the effect Sjón's blend of lyrical excellence and inspired imagination can have on the reader, and The Whispering Muse is every bit as wonderful and mad as its translated predecessor.  What it lacks in volume - the book is easily read in a couple of hours -, it makes up for with a bagful of ideas scattered like fairy dust throughout the story.  The mixture of Greek mythology, pompous quasi-academic self-importance and Nordic sagas (supported by a healthy diet of fish) is guaranteed to confuse, confound and entertain.

Caeneus, a man who literally and metaphorically towers above his company, is an enigma.  Despite his talent for story-telling, he is actually a taciturn soul, and it is only when the last scraps of dinner have been removed, and the splinter of wood is taken out, that he begins to talk:
"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." Telegram Books (2012), p.18
He is actually a real character from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and you can read all about him on Wikipedia.  Don't do it before reading the book though; if you do, you may spoil a few surprises the writer has in store for you...

Of course, there's more to The Whispering Muse than merely 140-odd pages of amusing story-telling - the problem though is figuring out exactly what themes the cunning writer has woven into the tapestry of his work.  The setting, post-war Europe, could be giving the reader a hint here.  Haraldsson, an Icelander living in Denmark, was a Nazi sympathiser during the war, working in Germany translating propaganda into his native tongue, and there are glimpses in the story of a man, and a region, attempting to come to terms with the end of the conflict.

The story of the Argonauts' visit to Lemnos could also be seen as a sort of parallel to Haraldsson's own stay on the ship.  Both stories are excerpts, interludes in a wider narrative, and when Caeneus tells the crew of the Argo's voyage from the Mediterranean up to the wilds of Ultima Thule, it's difficult not to compare this journey to the one the MS Elizabet Jun-Olsen is about to undertake - or indeed to the one Haraldsson must have endured to get from Iceland to mainland Europe.

One final possibility though is that of sexual awakening, linked to the effects of the war.  Haraldsson is strangely aroused in the presence of the splinter from the Argo, and the stories of the erotic adventures Caeneus and his ship-mates enjoyed on Lemnos eventually spur him on to a change in his lifestyle.  A metaphor for libido overcoming the dampening effects of world conflict?  Let's not take things too far ;)

The Whispering Muse, whatever interpretation you prefer to concentrate on, is another wonderful work by an inventive writer, and having a translator of the ability of Victoria Cribb only makes the book even better.  I loved her rendering of From the Mouth of the Whale, and this is again an excellent translation.  No, I haven't read the original Icelandic (!), but a good translation, as well as transferring the original meaning, is simply a good piece of writing in the new language, and Cribb's translation certainly fits that description.  To just pick out one example:
"Once the ear has fallen asleep, the humming takes on a new form.  It becomes a note, a voice sounding in the consciousness, as if a single grain of golden sand has slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum's tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world." p.89
Well, I liked it anyway ;)

I have a library copy of The Blue Fox sitting on my shelves, but after enjoying The Whispering Muse, I'm a little reluctant to open it.  You see, while Sjón has written several more pieces of fiction, only three have been translated into English so far.  So, while I wait for Ms. Cribb to get to work on the rest of Sjón's back catalogue, perhaps I should just save my final ticket to his magical world for another time...