Tuesday 21 April 2009

'All things change - nothing perishes.'

The Blue Fox
by Sjón

A book championed by Scott Pack, dovegreyreader and A.S. Byatt amongst others and carrying a helpful push from Iceland's first-daughter Björk on the cover, The Blue Foxweighs in at a featherweight 112 pages (and many of those contain little more than a paragraph) and yet like the best fables or fairy tales seems far more substantial. Sjón is the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson; author, poet and sometime lyricist for Björk, who won the 'Icelandic Booker' for this poetic and atmospheric novel.

Set in Iceland at the end of the nineteenth century the story begins with a hunter, Baldur Skuggason, a pastor on the trail of the titular vixen. For the first 30 pages there is often only a paragraph to each page, surrounded by white space which of course may conjure the snowy landscape through which the pastor moves after his prey. The sparse text slows down your reading pace, building the quiet tension of the hunt, and on the few pages populated by just a single sentence Sjón is able to fill his words with great significance, poetry or power. There is even humour when Skuggason spends the night in a snowdrift, the single line to describe it:

The night was cold and of the longer variety.

The next day another single line gives us poetry

The sun warms the man's white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.

There is a fascinating rhythym to these early stalking pages completed by a fitting climax when he finally manages to kill his prey and is swept up in an avalanche to be deposited under a glacier.

The other man in this story is Fridrik Fridriksson, a herbalist who returned to Iceland to settle his parent's affairs only to find himself still there 15 years later with a young girl who suffers from Down's Syndrome as his charge. We join him as he prepares to bury her, learning little by little more of her story. It is a bit like piecing together a puzzle, or solving a riddle, activities which he undertakes himself when he unties a package the young girl 'Abba' had carried her whole life, finding black wooden tablets, Latin words found on some pieces which resolve themselves into lines from Ovid.

As Fridriksson intricately pieces it together Sjón performs a similar trick, linking his two main characters, but the real magic of the novel comes from that unearthly, unreal feeling from the Icelandic landscape. The language also helps to build the fable-like atmosphere which makes anything possible, so that when the corpse of the blue fox springs to life from Skuggason's chest and begins to talk to him you don't really question it. It is a singular read for me, unlike anything I would normaly pick up, which leaves me unsure really what to say about it. Much like the music of Björk it defies easy categorisation, is bold, memorable and wholly its own.

Sjón is ably assisted by what feels like a clear translation from Victoria Cribb, but without any Icelandic myself it is always difficult to know. In fact on discovering that The Blue Fox in Icelandic is Skugga-Baldur and thus there is clear pun in the naming of the pastor that hunts it, connecting both the hunter and prey in a way that foreshadows what happens later in the book, I realised that there may be many more subtleties lost on the uninformed reader.


Max Cairnduff 10 July 2011 at 00:19  

It's a shame to lose nuances in translation, but it can't always be helped. I'm not sure whether to start here or with the new Sjón. What do you think?

A really nice couple of reviews Will.

Despite my fondness for a lot of music many would find odd (though not you), I've never really taken to Bjork. On a musical note though there's some good stuff on the Quietus best of 2011 so far Spotify list.

William Rycroft 10 July 2011 at 08:03  

I think I would start with this book Max as its a good introduction to Sjón's unique style, short and very satisfying. Then you'll be fully prepped for the bonkers From The Mouth Of The Whale.

Thank you for the music tip and also for your kind words. Both very much appreciated.

Max Cairnduff 11 July 2011 at 17:28  

This one it is. Thanks Will.

Are you on google+ by the way? So far it seems a metaphor for life generally. Puzzling and apparently pointless, but better with company.

William Rycroft 12 July 2011 at 10:15  

Ha! I'm not on it yet, no. I hardly ever get the chance to turn my desktop on these days and I don't have a job that plonks me in front of one. Although I understand there's an Android app for it. I'd welcome the chance to get off Facebook at any rate but I don't have an invite as yet. Keep me posted.

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