The Blue Fox by Sjon
Rarely does an author come loaded with such impressive indie and establishment credentials. As Björk’s long time collaborator, Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark. Renowned throughout Iceland for his numerous plays and poetry collections (the first of which was published when he was just sixteen) in 2005, Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox) was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize – the Nordic equivalent of the Booker. Bile might start to rise in certain quarters at the thought of musical hipsters who think they can pull off a novel. But in this beautiful, tiny book, Sjón has produced the literary equivalent of a snowflake, a hundred page riff on the literature, landscape and history of Iceland which reads more like an epic poem, albeit with one striking piece of modernity thrown in.
Two men dominate the book – local pastor Baldur Skuggason, who is tracking the eponymous fox through glacial fields, and Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, a returning prodigal who has abandoned Iceland for late seventeenth century Copenhagen and the company of a group called the lotus-eaters. Fridrik returns home to settle his deceased parents’ affairs, intending to burn the farm buildings and head back to a life of smoke and pleasure domes, but his discovery of a young girl, Abba, scrabbling for food in the outhouse of an old friend, prompts an act of kindness which forces him to stay, and sets him up in opposition to the reverend hunter.
The fact that Abba has Down’s Syndrome, a fact recognised by the medically well-read Fridrik, is an unsettlingly modern sleight of hand. In a book where everything else is perfectly pitched historically, it rings an odd but important note, forcing the reader to examine things more closely, and thereby realise that what we’re essentially reading is a good old-fashioned fairy tale. This is exactly the kind of Grimm story where people get lost in the woods, animals are liable to start talking, and the peasant girl is bound to turn out to be a princess – if she doesn’t get eaten by the wolf first. The characters are ciphers, the landscape is all consuming and we can probably take a decent guess at the ending. What makes it all so wonderful is the skill with which it is written.
Sjón’s poetic training tells. Most of the pages hold less than a paragraph, the observations are sparse and disconnected, and whilst perhaps it’s an obvious trick to leave so much blank space in a story dominated by snow, the effect of short chapters is a slowing of pace, not a Dan Brown-esque increase. Each word in its scarcity is loaded high with importance, so that your mode of reading changes and like the pastor tracking the fox, you pay close attention to every mark on the page. There are some lovely images too – the sound of snowmelt passes for birdsong, the beard of one character, “tumbles from his chin like an ice-bound cataract,” and the rhythm of each sentence is crafted by someone who is used to measuring syllables. Credit for this last must surely go to Victoria Cribb, the novel’s translator, without whom, “this most Icelandic of novels” as Sjón himself termed it, would not be available for impoverished monoglots like me. I wish I could explain the pun on the pastor’s name and the Icelandic title of the book, I’m sure it’s just one more subtlety in a very subtle book we’re missing.