I was thrilled last year when FSG published three novels from Icelandic author Sjón. I’d seen the British press covering them for a few years, and they always looked so intriguing. One of them, The Whispering Muse (Argóarflísin, 2005; tr. from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, 2012), has found its way on to the Best Translated Book Award longlist, and, though it was humorous, incredibly well translated, and made me want to read more Sjón, I do think the book will stay on the longlist.
The rather repulsive (in a good way — well, good for the reader who doesn’t have to deal with him in person) narrator is Valdimar Haraldsson, the author of a large body of work he began when he was 27: seventeen volumes “of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.”
I found myself chuckling consistently as the book took off, primarily because Haraldsson is such an unlikeable, unintelligent character. As he proclaims the superiority of the Nordic race he admits that his journal didn’t get much traction there: “I knew that the majority of my ideas would be far too newfangled for my countrymen, indeed would way over their heads.” Ha! In fact, strangely, humorously, the bulk his enthusiastic readers are foreigners. One such enthusiast is the young Hermann Jung-Olsen, fortunately fish-fed.
For Hermann Jung-Olsen was a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, yet although his childhood home was one of the most elegant in Copenhagen, there was fish on the table at least four times a week, not only on weekdays but on high days and holidays too. This was mainly because his father, Magnus Jung-Olsen, was of the old school when it came to money — a strict man who never rushed into anything or did a precipitate deed in his life, a great man indeed.
The glory days — as they were — of the journal were in the early part of the twentieth century. Now Haraldsson is older and the young Hermann Jung-Olsen has died. Nevertheless, the bond was strong enough that Hermann’s father Magnus invited Haraldsson, in April of 1949, to go on the maiden journey of a merchant vessel he owns, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.
Most of this relatively short book takes place on this ship, and we slip in and out of various narratives. On board is the second mate, Caeneus, who tells stories of his days sailing with Jason on the Argo. Everyone is captivated by Caeneus, who takes his prompts from a whispering splinter of the long-gone Argo. Meanwhile, Haraldsson keeps complaining that, of all things, there is little fish on board the ship:
When Rome declined, the emperors tried to resist the trend, thus Caesar Augustus summoned the Senate to compose a bill on the treatment of fish, while Nero equipped extravagant fishing fleets with nets of silk and lines of gold wire. Is this not a case of cause and effect? Where is Rome now?
In conclusion, let us remember this:
Life originates in the ocean and the ocean is the source from which life must seek its nourishment.
There is a clear relationship between Caeneus’s stories of the Argonaut’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the 1949 journey (delayed by more mundane things) of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, but I must say I haven’t been convinced there’s much here.
It’s all incredibly humorous, but when I’m reading a book like this, with such disparate threads, I am waiting for the moment they, in some way, come together, explain to me why they are part of the same book, add up to more than they are on their own. I didn’t get that here. I’ve been searching online reviews to see what thread I’m missing, and while I see a lot of conversation about the various threads — the Argonauts’ quest, Nordic myth, contemporary fables and politics — I’m still not getting the larger picture, to the extent there is one.
I don’t want to end this review on a down-beat, though, because I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. The stories are fun on their own, even if there connection felt slight, and Haraldsson — with his fishy ideas — is a fun narrator to get to know.