Perhaps this is an odd confession for someone who mistakenly classes himself (and is often classed mistakenly by others) as being well-read to make, but I’ve always had a bit of trepidation about reading novels that have only been translated into English.
That is, I’ve been putting off attempting such monumental classics of world literature as War and Peace and much of Balzac’s back catalogue by telling myself that, if I’m to get the full import and impact of such works – if I’m to read them the way they really should be read – then I should do so in the author’s original words. Of course, I’ve convinced myself more fully of this whenever anyone has suggested that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been putting them off because War and Peace is chuffin’ chunky, and there are enough books in Balzac’s Comédie humaine that I could have used them to build my shed.
However, over the past few years, I’ve embarked upon – and been utterly bowled over by – works by writers as diverse as Milan Kundera, Rabelais, Albert Camus, Roberto Bolaño, Reinaldo Arenas, Blaise Cendrars and Italo Calvino. The combined force of which have helped me see the error of my ways, and highlighted just how much of what is truly vital in literature I was missing out on.
I have come to appreciate the idea (heard previously but never properly, personally tested) that books from other cultures, translated or not, are nonetheless windows into the innermost workings of those cultures; even as the very fact of my reading works from such seemingly distant places has shown up how all such boundaries of culture are, and have long been (well before even the faintest conception of the Internet), infinitely permeable and fluid, if only people make the effort to allow them to be. Or, rather, cease making the effort to stop them from being.
It is this, which, by way of growing familiarity with the early works of other Scandinavian writers such as Knut Hamsun, as well as numerous recommendations, brought me recently to the writings of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known most commonly as Sjon.
And I am right bloody glad that it did.
It is appropriate, I suppose, in light of what’s mentioned above, that both The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse are a kind of fusion-fiction, melding in some areas a sparsely poetic, Hamsun-esque realism with blistering, unnerving elements of Icelandic folktales and more widely-sourced myth. But, rather than allowing this to be a smooth, magical-realist fusion, there is always an element of cynicism, a tension created by the presence of disbelievers, which threatens to undermine the works, even as, ultimately, it strengthens them and their closing intentions.
For instance, the latter book includes the character of Caeneus, borrowed/revived from ancient Grecian tales about the Argo. He can be seen as the embodiment of the way that myths and stories can continue to shape and affect people – even, and this is perhaps most crucial, if those stories happen to have originated somewhere far from their audience. He becomes indicative of the germinant qualities of a good yarn – its ability to adapt, survive, and, ultimately, to spread and become part of wider narratives; of histories personal, social, and even global.
However, the novel’s narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, is far too busy espousing his obsession with the supposedly scientifically-proven ideas on the positive correlation between Nordic cultural hegemony and fish consumption (to a largely Nordic audience), to give much credence to what he sees as Caeneus’ ‘ridiculous’ tales of his adventurous past.
Because the story – and, therefore, Caeneus’ tale - unfolds through this sceptical viewpoint, it is not clear how seriously any of it should or even can be taken. That is, it is uncertain whether there will be any meaning to the tale at all, or whether the cynicism and close-mindedness/obsessiveness will undermine and override it in the end.
Indeed, in the first book, The Blue Fox, Sjon is perhaps even more explicit in his depiction of this tension between the sceptical, hard-headed nature of the men on display – particularly the priest, Baldur Skuggason, who hunts the eponymous animal – and the more whimsical, free-flowing nature of other figures, as well as the folk-tale-ridden landscape in which Skuggason gradually becomes more immersed, both physically and mentally.
In this way, these works certainly feel as though they provide an insight into certain areas of Scandinavian history and culture, even as they interrogate the wider impact and reach of that culture, and the way such interactions can impact upon a place, its inhabitants and their ideas.
On that score alone, they make for fascinating and worthwhile reading. Yet, the fact that they are written (and, importantly, translated, by all accounts brilliantly, by Victoria Cribb) in such an effective, compellingly direct manner, serves to make them even moreso.
At the close of each book, and certainly after reading them back-to-back, I was left with a feeling of great satisfaction, as though re-energised. Which, again, perfectly suits the way the central conflicts and tensions are resolved. The last sections of these novels come to act, both within and beyond the narrative, as both a celebration and a reward for allowing something different, and difficult, to become a part of one’s life.
The ending of The Whispering Muse in particular is a dramatisation of this – the suggestion being that, no matter how far a story (or storyteller) has travelled to reach you, and no matter how much may have been chipped away from that story – lost in translation, as it were – if it seems there is some truth, some vitality to it, it is probably best to stop making excuses, to simply dive in and embrace what you find there of use.
Having read these two books, as well as works by the other authors mentioned above, I can't help but agree.I still aim to be able someday to read fluently in other languages. But I’m increasingly aware that being actually well-read, and thereby hopefully ever-more open-minded and more understanding, is the salient goal, and one that can’t really wait.