The Whispering Museby Sjón
Already celebrated far beyond his native Iceland, the novels of Sjón arrive on waves of praise from writers, critics, and readers worldwide. Sjón has won countless international awards and earned ringing comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Iceland’s other literary superstar, the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. The Whispering Muse is/i>
Already celebrated far beyond his native Iceland, the novels of Sjón arrive on waves of praise from writers, critics, and readers worldwide. Sjón has won countless international awards and earned ringing comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Iceland’s other literary superstar, the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. The Whispering Muse is his masterpiece so far.
The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilization, has had the extraordinary good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea. Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travelers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on its quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
What unfolds is a slender but masterful, brilliant, and always entertaining novel that ranges deftly from the comic to the mythic as it weaves together tales of antiquity with the modern world in a voice so singular as to seem possessed.
“An extraordinary, powerful fable—a marvel.” —Alberto Manguel
“Sjón is the trickster that makes the world, and he is achingly brilliant.” —Junot Díaz
“When I need something epic and lyrical I call upon Sjón.” —Björk
“Sjón’s writing [is] full of brilliant details, surprises and delights . . . [He is] an extraordinary and original writer.” —A. S. Byatt, The Guardian
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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The Whispering Muse
By Sjón, Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Sjón
All rights reserved.
I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race. It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years. During the First World War, publication was suspended for two years—and the sixth and seventh volumes were only half complete, i.e., only two issues each, as fate decreed that following the death of my first wife I was confined to my bed for eight months, from late August 1910 until spring 1911. Then the extent of the readers' loyalty to the periodical was revealed, as I see from my records that the only parties who canceled their subscriptions were the University of Kraków and the Kjós Parish Reading Society. I won't go further into the reasons here but will refer anyone who may be interested to my book Memoirs of a Herring Inspector (pub. Fisk og Kultur, Copenhagen, 1933).
The content of the journal was written primarily in foreign tongues, as I knew that the majority of my ideas would be far too newfangled for my countrymen, indeed would pass way over their heads. For they hadn't even heard of the recent scientific advances on which I based my theory, which was reiterated on the title page of every issue:
It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigor and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.
The final issue of each volume included a summary of the year's best articles and essays, translated into Hungarian by my brother-in-law, the psychiatrist Dr. György Pázmány. Every issue also included bits and bobs to fill up the pages, chiefly droll stories and occasional verses from my childhood home in the county of Kjós, all in Icelandic, which I left untranslated.
As one might expect, I was for a long time the sole author of the scientific articles in Fisk og Kultur, but as the journal gained a wider circulation I received ever greater numbers of letters and contributions from foreign enthusiasts on these topics. While most were interested in fish consumption, there were also quite a few devotees of Nordic racial history. However, it was a rare man who perceived—as I, the editor, did—how inextricably these two factors were linked. Primus inter pares among the latter group was the Danish ship broker Hermann Jung-Olsen, then hardly out of his teenage years yet already showing an unusual brilliance of mind. He was one of those individuals who inspire benevolence and sympathy from the very first encounter, deepening on more intimate acquaintance into respect and trust. For Hermann Jung-Olsen was a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, yet although his childhood home was one of the most elegant in Copenhagen, there was fish on the table at least four times a week, not only on weekdays but on high days and holidays too. This was mainly because his father, Magnus Jung-Olsen, was of the old school when it came to money—a strict man who never rushed into anything or did a precipitate deed in his life, a great man indeed.
The reason for my bringing up the publishing history of Fisk og Kultur here is that a whole eight years after the appearance of the final issue I received a letter from the great ship operator, the aforementioned Magnus Jung-Olsen, father of my late young friend Hermann, in which he invited me on a cruise with the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant vessel of the Kronos line, the Jung-Olsen family firm. Recently launched, she was due to embark on her maiden voyage, conveying raw paper from Norway to Izmit in Turkey and continuing from there to Poti in Soviet Georgia to pick up a cargo of tea that the locals cultivate on the Kolkheti coastal plain and prepare for export in the exemplary tea factories provided for them by Stalin.
Mr. Jung-Olsen says in his letter that his son long dreamed of doing me some sort of favor—as he had mentioned more than once—and that the old shipping magnate had been reminded of this fact when he received my telegram of condolence on the anniversary of Hermann's death, nearly four years after his untimely end (he was murdered on the day peace was declared, in a Bierkeller brawl in Vienna).
The letter reached me at the end of March, at a time when I had long been in low spirits (my second wife having passed away that very month the previous year), but now my heart was filled with unfeigned joy: joy at being invited on such an adventure; joy that one could still meet with such charity from one man to another; joy that the buds looked promising on the boughs of the apple trees in the tiny patch of garden that belonged to my foolish neighbor Widow Lauritzen, although the poor neglected creatures had suffered cruelly in the February storms. Yes, such was my joy when I read Mr. Magnus Jung-Olsen's letter.
And I read it often.
In 1908 I published a witty anecdote in the spring issue of Fisk og Kultur. For some reason it popped into my mind as I stood there at the kitchen window in Copenhagen, the letter still clutched in my hand:
Once there were two gentlemen who met in a park while out walking their dogs. The younger instantly doffed his hat to the elder, who nodded in acknowledgment. Then, as chance would have it, the younger man's dog tore itself loose and raced off after a squirrel. The young man was embarrassed and started apologizing to the elder, saying that his dog had never done this sort of thing before; he had no business frightening squirrels; this was a one-off; it wouldn't happen again, he could promise that.
The elder gentleman listened patiently to his apologies, then putting his head on one side, said with a twinkle in his eye:
"Young man, is it possible that you are confusing me with little Mr. Esquirol?"
Dr. Pázmány and I were so tickled by this story that we added it to the Hungarian summary that year.
But I doubt my countrymen would have made head or tail of it.CHAPTER 2
At eleven o'clock on the morning of April 10, 1949, the merchant ship MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen departed the free port of Copenhagen en route to Norway, bound for Mold Bay in the county of Vest-Agder. My quarters on board consisted of two spacious cabins amidships on the port side below the bridge, the outer room entered from the saloon. This cabin contained every conceivable comfort: a berth and chairs, desk, cupboards, and bookshelves, all as neatly made as one could wish for. The inner cabin consisted of a bathroom with a china washbasin, a mirror as long as the space permitted, and a deep bathtub on bronze feet shaped like the claws of a dragon or lion (one can't always tell them apart). Opening off the bathroom was a roomy closet containing a modern WC. I couldn't help thinking that it would be interesting to see the captain's quarters, given the comfort of the accommodation afforded to the "supernumeraries," as they call those who are over and above the crew.
Well, I was now extremely glad that I had dropped by at my benefactor's headquarters on my way to the ship that morning to deliver a letter of thanks. I had worked on its composition far into the night, making three drafts before the final clean copy, for in addition to conveying my gratitude, I wished heartily to congratulate Mr. Magnus Jung-Olsen on the success of his remarkable company.
I sat down by the porthole and looked out over the sound. The sky was overcast, a stiff northerly breeze sending a considerable swell head-on to the ship. The whistle blew from time to time, at lengthy intervals. Ahead nothing could be seen but the crests of the waves, slapping their white foam hither and thither as they swelled and subsided in turn. Sleet began to pelt from the sky and the view faded. I watched until I could no longer distinguish sky from sea, then lay down, worn out from my letter-writing the night before.
I set my alarm clock for five p.m. The food on board the vessels of the Kronos line is famed throughout the shipping world and it is claimed that the Danish king borrows their chefs when His Majesty's own ship's cook is indisposed.
* * *
I was shown to a seat at the captain's table, where Captain Alfredson introduced me to the first and second mates, the first engineer, and the purser. There was a woman there too, the purser's wife, I assumed, but later gathered that their marital status was somewhat irregular and it would be more correct to call her his lady friend. Apparently I was not to be the only supernumerary on this trip.
The woman, who had thick fair hair, was of below average height and stoutly built. She seemed half afraid of me, or at least inordinately shy. I thought she was goggling at me but later observed that this expression was habitual, for on closer acquaintance I noticed that in addition to large eyes set rather low in her face, she had a drooping lower lip that caused her to gape inadvertently between sentences. She was German or, by her own account, Polish by family and birth, or even Lithuanian, but apparently spoke German to her gentleman friend. She understood a little Danish but didn't speak it, as the couple had only been together three seasons. At this stage it didn't occur to me to delve any further into her situation or life story, as I assumed that there would be plenty of time for such things on the voyage. I asked the captain whether the purser normally brought along his "lady friend." He said no. In reply to my question of how long the woman intended to remain with us he said that there were only two options, either she could disembark at Mold Bay or else go all the way to Izmit, because those would seemingly be our first two ports of call. But we would see how it went. I should mention that the purser was in his forties; a likable chap, despite an inability to pronounce his "r"s, who could be described as good-looking were it not for the milky-white cataract in his right eye. His foreign mistress was about twenty years younger than him.
There were seven of us in the saloon and plenty of room at the captain's table. Everyone was friendly and did their best to make this first meal as congenial as possible. I myself was not feeling quite the thing after my afternoon nap; there seemed to be something wrong with the heating in my cabin, because however far I turned on the radiator it remained obstinately cold, whether I turned the tap at the top or the bottom. After the cheery fat cook had announced the evening's well-thought-out menu, I informed the captain of my problem. And also that when, having started up from my sleep around three, I went into the saloon and complained to the ship's steward who was there polishing the dinner service, he had said that there were often small teething troubles with new ships, though of course this shouldn't happen, and that this little hitch would be sorted out in no time. However, this had not been done and now, you see, I was rather dreading the onset of night. Captain Alfredson nodded during my speech but did not reply, keeping his own counsel, but then signaled to the engineer to see to the matter. The engineer asked the company to excuse him and rose from the table.
Now the meal commenced with one splendid dish succeeding another. They had not lied about the quality of the Kronos line's cooking. What did attract my attention, however, was the fact that none of the dishes were fish. I thought to myself that this was probably coincidence and that we would have fish for the next four days as was customary in the Jung-Olsen family home. Anyway, it was all delightful and time passed far too quickly. The first engineer reappeared as we were finishing the most ambrosial ris à la mande that has ever passed my lips. He said he thought there was some grit in the radiator pipes, they must have come like that from the manufacturer, and he had ordered the third engineer to flush them out—or scrape them. I didn't entirely follow the details of this repair story—to tell the truth I considered it rather inappropriate for the dinner table. At this point Spanish brandy was served, accompanied by Danish cigars in a hardwood box, and without another word on the subject, the first engineer applied himself to these refreshments. Different rules pertain at sea from on shore—here men must constantly tend to their lodging even while enjoying its protection.
* * *
Sailors who have been at sea for many years have a bottomless supply of tales about events they have either experienced firsthand or heard of from others of their ilk. In particular, it turned out that Caeneus, second mate of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, was not shy about sharing with us various incidents that had befallen him in his day. He did so for the entertainment of his messmates, though they regarded it as an education too, since he had traveled farther and seen more than any of them. From the anticipation that gripped my traveling companions I gathered that the second mate must be an outstanding storyteller, and I realized that they had been waiting for this moment throughout the meal.
I haven't touched tobacco since my wife died, as I explained to the captain so he wouldn't take it amiss when I declined his expensive cigars. However, I did accept another glass of brandy, then leaned back in my chair and prepared to enjoy Caeneus's seafaring yarn.
Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver. He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro. As this was the first time I had heard Caeneus talk, I smiled foolishly at his absurd performance. I could only assume that it was the prelude to some vulgar piece of clowning and mimicry, and I looked around, expecting to see the same reaction from my table companions—even to see the woman tittering. But they were sitting quite still in their seats, waiting for the story to begin. Even the purser's lady friend watched enthralled as the man listened to the splinter of wood. My smile swiftly faded and in my confusion I darted a glance at Captain Alfredson, who did me the courtesy of overlooking my faux pas. Abruptly leaning forward on his elbows, he said in a quiet, firm voice:
"It's where he gets the story from ..."
At these words the second mate put down the piece of driftwood. And began his tale:
"Many things can befall a sailor in his life; the perils await him not only at sea but also in far-off ports. I wish to tell you about a train of events that led me into a piece of foolishness, which resulted in such misfortune that I came within an inch of losing my life.
"I was a deckhand on a ship called the Argo. We were crossing the Aegean, having set sail from the city of Iolcus in Magnesia with a long voyage ahead. The ship was newly built and fitted out with the finest rigging, but contrary winds and an unusually heavy swell had caused us to drift somewhat off our course at the very outset of our adventure. When we made landfall on the island of Lemnos it was with the intention of taking on water and provisions—there was certainly no other plan—and it should by rights have detained us no more than a couple of days. But in the event we were to spend nearly ten months on the island.
"Admittedly, we thought it strange that there were no ships lying in the harbor and that we hadn't encountered any craft in the approaches to the port, but as we were eager to reach land it was not enough to rouse our suspicions and make us cautious. Nor were we troubled by the fact that the docks were empty of people. The men exchanged glances and said that the citizens must be in the city celebrating some festival—and wasn't it a happy coincidence that we should turn up at such a time? We put out a boat and two of the crew piloted the ship to the harbor side. There we reefed the mainsail, moored the ship, and stepped ashore.
Excerpted from The Whispering Muse by Sjón, Victoria Cribb. Copyright © 2012 Sjón. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Sjón is the author of, among other works, The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale. Born in Reykjavík in 1962, he is an awardwinning novelist, poet, and playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. He is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and chairman of the board of Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavík.
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