The Icelandic writer Sjón has not one but three books helping him make a mini-Scandinavian invasion. The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From the Mouth of the Whale, tales of proximity to nature from which the surreal sprouts, have been translated into English and just released in America by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Sjón began his artistic career as a surrealist, and he does not find this surprising, given that when he was 9 years old he was obsessed with an Icelandic folk tale about an animal called the furry trout. “If a man eats a furry trout, he falls pregnant,” he recently told a Manhattan book-event audience that included his longtime friend, the singer Björk, whose own eclecticism is nothing to laugh at. When it is time to deliver, Sjón continues, the man, lacking a birth canal, should be laid out on a table, his belly cut open with the sharpest knife in the kitchen. We have always been compelled by surrealism’s curious allure and repelled by its primal horror.
Sjón meets me the next day over an 11-course seafood meal prepared at the New York Icelandic consulate by the Danish chef Stephan Alsman, one half of the catering enterprise Noshi Brooklyn. “We better be careful,” the author tells me over bites of monkfish and sea robin—creatures so fantastic that they may as well have been the furry trout. (The sea robin was even served in a bento box full of spruce branches.) In 2005, Sjón wrote The Whispering Muse, about a fish scholar named Valdimar Haraldsson who believes that eating seafood is the reason for the superiority of the Nordic race. (The year is 1949, well after the Nazi atrocities.) Haraldsson finds himself on a ship with a second mate claiming to be Caeneus of the Greeks, who regales the crew with his story of accompanying Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece on his ship, the Argo; he also shocks everyone by revealing that he was originally a girl and was turned into a man after being raped by Poseidon. Caeneus is in fact spellbinding the ship’s crew by plaiting two completely separate myths—the Argonauts come from Apollonius’s telling, and Ovid provides the rape by Poseidon, so there might as well have been two Caeneuses. Sjón, too, captivates us with a complicated brew of pseudoscience and fables. We are invited to connect the dots to see the picture.
“All literature is visual arts,” Sjón says. “Maybe the French, and some Germans, write nonvisual novels. It’s possible.” Not Sjón, whose name means “vision.” He chooses to see fantastical things in the real world, and his novels are about people who share similarly imaginative cosmologies. He frequently writes lyrics for Björk, and when she performed their song “Oceania” at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Sjón went along. On a day trip to Cape Sounion, he says he is absolutely sure that he met the god Poseidon. “Yes, I saw him, he was there! He did not have his tri-fork, but he was in the shape of the ocean,” he says as we test out Haraldsson’s theory by wolfing down another piece of fish. “When you live in a place so close to nature, you know all things are alive.”