Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: The Whispering Muse

Title: The Whispering Muse

Author: Sjón

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Genre: Icelandic Literature

Length: 141 pages

Published: April 30, 2013


Already celebrated far beyond his native Iceland, the novels of Sjón arrive on waves of praise from writers, critics, and readers worldwide. Sjón has won countless international awards and earned ringing comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Iceland’s other literary superstar, the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. The Whispering Muse is his masterpiece so far. 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 extraordinary 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 its quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. What unfolds is a slender but masterful, brilliant, and always entertaining novel that ranges deftly from the comic to the mythic as it weaves together tales of antiquity with the modern world in a voice so singular as to seem possessed.


The premise of the story at the surface is pretty simple, but this is Sjón, a brilliant author who is a master at telling tales that takes the simple and makes it complex, extraordinary, sometimes weird, but always delightful. In The Whispering Muse, I could immediately feel many traditions that make up this masterpiece: the saga, Halldór Laxness (I'm thinking Independent People), and loosely, The Canterbury Tales. The latter especially rings in my mind because there are many characters telling stories throughout their seafaring voyage, each story growing increasingly different, witty, funny, and philosophical. But among those characters, it's Caeneus who's the star of the show, and he entertainers the reader of The Whispering Muse as much if not more than the characters in it. And within the stories that Caeneus tells, that's when the saga and Laxness tradition comes in. But again, this is Sjón. He does his own modern take on those beloved traditions, and oh so brilliantly entertains as his book and its world unfolds. It's not only the writing that I adored, but the characters. Their dry, dark humor cracked me up, possessing me as much as the story did. The myths told I knew, and because of this familiarity, I was able to truly enjoy how masterfully Sjón weaved them throughout the narrative. Even if you aren't too familiar with them, I think one would be hard pressed to not be amused and intrigued nonetheless by the whimsical stories within this story, and by the eccentricities of the characters who are satirical by nature, mocking the loftiness of elderly scholars and their naive admirers. Valdimar is that anti-hero, and his fish, numbers, theories, Nordic, and all-things-the-sea obsessions are satirical and pretty hilarious, similar to how the anti-hero of Independent People, Bjartur, is obsessed with all things sheep. It's not all chuckles though; as myths and sagas are meant to do, in The Whispering Muse you'll be educated on fish-based diets and Nordic strength and virility all throughout every dinner scene. With all of Valdimar's obsessions that he passionately shares with everyone on the crew, he's blind to the pleasures of every day life, and is socially awkward to boot. Is Caeneus his foil? Sjón doesn't make anything in The Whispering Muse so obvious. There's always something deeper beyond that surface---something odd, surprising, and brilliant---that makes the ending just phenomenal. It may leave you stumped---as sagas, myths, and fables typically do---and bend your mind, making you wonder what the message of this whole story is and what the hell it all means. That's what makes The Whispering Muse such a delight and one of Sjón's best and most critically-acclaimed works. It's a short novella that could be read in a single day---and heck, maybe in only a few hours---but it can make you smile for far longer than that. Every 141 of its pages will be devoured, and it will have you hunger for more, to want to read The Whispering Muse again and again, and to want to read more from Sjón. Luckily, we can enjoy some of his works in English that's been translated from the Icelandic. If you never read a Sjón novel before, start with this one since the first of most things in life are the most memorable and unforgettable---as is The Whispering Muse itself.

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