The Whispering Muse: A Novel by Sjón; translated by Victoria Cribb (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; originally published in 2005. 160 pp)
Born in Reykjavik in 1962, Sjón is an acclaimed Icelandic novelist. He won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize for The Blue Fox. His Latest novel, Moonstone—The Boy Who Never Was was awarded the 2013 Icelandic Literary Prize. A poet, librettist, and lyricist, Sjón has worked with Björk. He is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and former chairman of the board of Reykjavik, UNESCO city of Literature.
Victoria Cribb lived in Iceland for a number of years, working as a translator, journalist, and publisher. She has translated the works of Sjón, Gyrδir Elíasson, and Arnaldur Indriδason, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. in Old Icelandic literature at the University of Cambridge.
Let’s Share a Meal
When I was little, I found the concept of paying for food odd. The consumption of food seems to be an inalienable right. Without it, we die. Shouldn’t that be free? Those aspects of nature we can’t control couldn’t be requirements of the market, could they?
Put differently, wouldn’t we all fight tooth and nail if we had to pay to use the bathroom in public?
And yet, we pay for food. The cheapest food, paradoxically, represents the unhealthiest option. Blood, sweat, and tears manufacture our sustenance. There’s an economic source of our food. Some comes from the soil. Some through animals of the land. Others, though, from the sea.
There’s a romantic connection to the sea. The ocean represents a difficult-to-conquer beast, with valuable nutrients underneath its roiling waters. And yet we traverse the dangerous waters for the blessings of seafood.
A complicated, layered story, The Whispering Muse channels Greek mythology through a mid-century fishing vessel to consider the adventures we take for sustenance.
A Devoted Student of Fish
The story follows Valdimar Haraldsson, a devoted student of fish and its value to the human diet, as he travels with a seafaring crew on a merchant ship in 1949.
Haraldsson is obsessed with fish. In fact, his philosophy of life surrounds the virtues of a sea-based diet.
“Life originates in the ocean and the ocean is the source from which life must seek its nourishment. The Nordic countries with their fish-rich coastal waters will continue to foster and rear vigorous generations, to the benefit of mankind; the Nordic countries have made a huge contribution to world culture (both with regard to their racial qualities and their inventions—everything from the steam engine and electricity to the airplane and wireless); the Nordic countries are mighty—the might of the sea is boundless.
The sea is the mainspring of the Nordic nations” (75-76)!
Daily, the crew completes its work and gathers for a communal meal, often under the watchful eye of Valdimar. Given his particular passions, Haraldsson uses his days to hunt for fish to contribute to this nightly meal. Harnessing a catch brings great joy for the upcoming potential dishes.
“When it finally stopped flapping about the deck and lay gasping at my feet, I calculated that this gargantuan fish would suffice for at least two meals for the seven of us at the captain’s table” (42).
A Spotty Narrator
And yet in his preoccupation with such sustenance, Haraldsson becomes a spotty narrator for a narrative nested within The Whispering Muse. This ship’s second mate, Caeneus, narrates a fantastical story to his captive audience, one surprisingly similar to the mythical narrative of Jason and the Argonauts.
Is it possible that Haraldsson’s preoccupation limits him from seeing the magic under his nose?
We all need to eat. The power of food offers an important metaphor for how we press forward. But too much of a focus on a basic necessity might push us past things that matter at a deeper level.
As a kid, I was too focused on how food gets to me, why I should eat it, and whether or not it was a fair system. Those might be good questions, but they should never overtake deeper questions of purpose.
The Whispering Muse is a crafty story. Recommended.
Verdict: 4 out of 5