Book Review - The Whispering Muse

Sjón is an Icelandic poet and novelist and a regular lyricist for Björk. He also wrote the lyrics for Lars Von Trier's film Dancer in the Dark. His quirky, multi-layered approach to writing is evident in his previous books, The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale, translated by Victoria Cribb and published by Telegram.

In his latest novel to be translated into English, The Whispering Muse, Sjón interweaves Greek and Norse myth to great effect and demonstrates the transformative power of storytelling. It’s 1949 and Vladimar Haraldsson, an elderly Icelandic writer convinced that there is a link between the consumption of fish and the superiority of the Nordic race, has been invited on a cruise by a Danish shipping magnate.

On board the merchant ship, transporting raw paper to Turkey and Soviet Georgia, the second mate, Caeneus, entertains the crew and their guests with tales of the exploits of Jason and the Argonauts on their way to reclaim the Golden Fleece. For inspiration he listens to the “whispering” of “a rotten chip of wood…like a telephone receiver”. Haraldsson is at first irritated by the seaman’s storytelling and the rapt attention of his audience, until he discovers that the splinter of wood had been rescued from the derelict bow of the Argo.

According to Greek myth, Caeneus was once a beautiful young woman. After Poseidon had raped her, he offered to grant her anything she wished and she chose to become a man, so that the offence could not be repeated. On his death, Caeneus was transformed once again – this time into a bird.

For Haraldsson, compulsive and slightly pompous, the stories have a positive effect. Initially disappointed that more fish is not forthcoming at the captain’s table, he starts catching his own. By the end he has almost forgotten his obsession and finds himself profoundly altered by the seaman’s yarns and the strange, mystical power of the whispering muse.

The boundaries between fact and fiction, the surreal and the ordinary are deliberately blurred. Sjón delights in challenging his reader and seamlessly blends incidents from the present with tales from the past: an accident at the sawmill, resulting in the death of a worker, is swiftly followed by another tale from Caeneus who describes the Argonauts’ stay on the island of Lemnos, inhabited solely by women. Here, a flaxen-haired poetess relates the gruesome Norse myth of Sigurd and his relationship with the sorceress Gudrun, paralleling Jason’s own demise on his return to Corinth —“the hero who lost everything.”

Sjón is a master at drawing contemporary resonance from ancient fables and highlights how mythology is still an integral part of a society’s culture and can impact on the modern world, act as a moral compass, or can be used, as it was by the Nazis, to boost nationalism. It is no coincidence that the sea voyage takes place in the shadow of the Second World War.

Once again, Sjón has chosen an unusual subject, interwoven the fantastical with the ordinary, and produced a complex and strangely compelling work of fiction.

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