Sunday 28 February 2010

The Blue Fox

My weekend of reading those short books in translation is going apace, with two and a bit down. I also read possibly my first book by an author with only one name, since I've never read anything by Cher... oh, wait, no, there's Saki too. Anyway. It's definitely the first Icelandic book I've read, The Blue Fox by Sjon. Imagine the accent on the 'o', if you will - apparently this penname means 'sight'.

I'd heard about the novel (novella?) in a few places - first at dovegreyreader, methinks, then later when Scott Pack chose it as his first Blogger's Book of the Month - and Claire at Paperback Reader has also written about it - there you go, three reviews to read before I even get past a weak Cher joke. And they all liked it - you can add me to that pile.

Published in Icelandic in 2004, Victoria Cribb's translation was published by Telegram Books in 2008. I always make sure to credit translators, because it is one of the jobs which impresses me the most, being about as far away as possible from own (incredibly limited) skill set. And, though I cannot compare Cribb's translation with Sjon's original, I'm pretty certain that the atmosphere of the book has been carried across.

The Blue Fox takes place in January 1883, and the first section follows the priest Baldur Skuggason as he is on the trail of the elusive blue fox. Each page has a paragraph or two of text on it, slowing down the reading process and giving the words the form, as well as the language, of poetry. Not that it is overly full of imagery or anything like that - rather, the language is sparse and deceptively simple. And there is a subtle humour throughout. One page reads simply: 'The night was cold and of the longer variety.' We follow the slow and careful hunt, and even if (like me) you're willing the fox to escape, this is still beautiful writing. Completely unlike anything I've read before.

Just as the trigger is pulled on the gun, we jump back a few days, to the world of Fridrik B. Fridiksson and his charge Abba, who has Down's Syndrome. Apparently it was rare, in the mid-19th century in Iceland at least, for babies with Down's Syndrome to be left alive.
No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.
Once more the structure is strange, as it's going backgrounds. We meet characters before we know their histories; sometimes we are told they are dead before they even appear. It all lends a disorientating feeling, but fairy-tale-like rather than sinister. Perhaps it is the mediation of translation, or perhaps it is in Sjon's writing, but The Blue Fox feels almost mystical, as though it is read through a glass darkly.

I'll be honest - I wasn't *as* bowled over by the novella as Scott Pack was, but I am very glad that I've read it. The sections of the hunt, especially - which continue at the end of the book, increasingly and beautifully surreal - were haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I've read. For a taste of Icelandic literature, and a glimpse of a wholly different world and time, I suggest you pick up The Blue Fox - you're unlikely to read anything else similar this year.


  1. It is just brilliant! I gave a copy of this in a BAFABW to the wonderful, gothic, magical and inspirational Professor T., an academic lady of my aquaintance, who loved it. Glad it worked its magic for you too.

  2. You'll be even more pleased to know that I got it out of the library :-)

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. I loved this story and posted my thoughts on it too. I'm glad you enjoyed it to the extent that you did.

  4. This soudns very interesting and slightly magical reaslim-y - which I really enjoy (most of the time) so thank you for recommending it, hannah

  5. Thanks for the link, Simon. Also thank you for highlighting the wonderful work done by the translator; at the time of posting my review I wasn't as conscious of the wonderful work that translators do.

    I found this an understated work that makes more of an impact upon reflection than at the time of reading; the effect of a few words on the page and that expanse of snow was interesting and well-done.

    I'm looking forward to hearing about the others you read over the weekend. I have so many shorter works (some in translation, some not) lined up that I really should take a weekend or three of my own to rattle them off.

  6. This has been on my shelf for a while, I should read it soon before it gets to warm! Have you read anything by Haldor Laxness*(accent over O to)? He's another Icelandic writer and a nobel prize winner. I'm glad you got it from the library too!

  7. I think I shall look out for this one. I got offered a copy from the publishers after DGR read it and turned it down (see I don't say yes to every book ha) and am now unamused with myself.

  8. This was a book that gave 4 stars to when I first read it but went back and added a star after a few weeks as the book had stayed with me. Really very haunting.

  9. I know it's only March but *absolutely* the best book I've read this year.
    Beautiful writing - the translator is a genius.
    Anybody know if anything else by this author has been/ is going to be published?

  10. Wow, Alison, praise indeed! I'm afraid I have no idea if any more are to be published... not sure who to ask either... but fingers crossed!

  11. "Rökkurbýsnir (The Twilight of Marvels) by Sjon

    Forthcoming in German, English, Danish and Swedish."

    According to the Wikkipedia entry, no date tho.

  12. Thanks for your post on this book! I have always been fascinated by Iceland, but know little to nothing about it. I will have to check this one out, plus I love folklore/fairy tales.

  13. I've just read his new one FRom the Mouth of The Whale but he was a new author to me and I didn't know about this one. Your review makes me want to read it so thanks for writing about it


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