Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson, better known as Sjón, is a postmodern artist in his own right, novelist, poet and lyricist. His persona is connected with the kind of artistic flair that I tend to categorize as pretentious.
Internationally, he is perhaps best known for having written the lyrics to some of Björk’s songs. He even received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his lyrics to “I’ve Seen it All” from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
I had never read one of his books before, but heard that they were both surreal and complicated, which is why I expected not to like The Blue Fox. I was so afraid that my negative expectations would blur my objective thinking that I was hesitant to even pick it up.
But, as it happens, Sjón is full of surprises.
The book begins inside the mind of a poor scared female fox who is being hunted. Describing her feelings, the surroundings, the weather and the hunter with only a few carefully-chosen words, Sjón brings his readers to the cold snowy mountains of an Icelandic winter. The words flow like a poem and are so realistic that you can almost feel the snow blow down your shirt.
Then the perspective shifts, revealing the hunter’s thoughts, examining the shadows of his mind and his dark intentions. Nothing can keep him away from his prey. After playing this game of hide and seek for some time, I began to wonder for how long this can go on, without getting boring, that is.
Just then the story takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, readers are taken a few days back in time to the peaceful countryside. Another man is introduced, a farmer and an herbalist, who with stoic calm is making a coffin for a loved one who has passed away, handing it over to the local priest’s mentally-disabled servant.
Little by little, the reader learns more about these two main characters, the hunter, who is also the priest, and the herbalist, and how they’re stories are intertwined. It’s a short book and therefore a simple story, one might think, but there is much more to it.
The Blue Fox recounts beautifully the eternal struggle between human wickedness and compassion. Despite being short there is quite a lot of story between the two covers, because much can be read between the lines.
It contains both realistic and surreal elements—in a way in which the surrealism makes sense in this alternate reality—and references are made to folk-stories and books by authors such as Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness.
The story is set in the late 19th century when Iceland was primarily a nation of poor, uneducated farmers over which preachers had a stronghold through religion. It provides a portal into the Icelandic existence before the nation began its quick-paced journey into modernism.
The book is written in the style of romantic nationalism, which had just awakened among Icelanders at that time, with a new sense of national identity and fight for independence. Similarly, Sjón’s use of language is deliberately dated. But it is also refreshingly original considering that most of today’s authors seem to think originality lies in slang.
Sjón engages in intricate wordplay such that much must be lost in translation. The original title, for example, is Skugga-Baldur, which is a malicious creature from Icelandic folklore, half cat, half fox, but in the story it is also the name of one of the main characters, Rev. Baldur Skuggason, the fox hunter.
Originally published by Bjartur in 2003, The Blue Fox earned Sjón the 2005 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. This year, after being released in English, the book received a nomination for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced in May.
Whether The Blue Fox deserves to win, I cannot say, but it certainly deserves to be read. Contrary to my expectations, this is not a work of pretension at all, although I would have preferred if it had delved a bit deeper into the storyline at times and left a little less for the reader to guess. However, because of these gaps, I imagine it could spark quite interesting discussions at book circles.
The English version is available here. The book has also been translated into a host of other languages.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir