Blast from the Past: The Blue Fox – Sjón (tr. Victoria Cribb)

The Blue Fox was the first book I read of the Icelandic author Sjón, and it blew me away. I read it many years ago, pre-blog, and while recently sorting out some of bookshelves, came upon it again. Suddenly, I felt like penning some thoughts on it.

The Blue Fox is a haunting, mythical novella, a blend of historical fiction and fairytale, with a very dreamlike vibe pulsing through it.

Set in Iceland in the late 1800s, the book opens with the protagonist Baldur Skuggason, a priest, hunting for the mystical blue fox on the whitened, frozen landscape in the dead of winter.

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

In the throes of a howling wind and a raging blizzard, the action in this section feels like watching a slow motion film, as the Reverend stealthily moves across the snowy slopes in his quest to trap the enigmatic vixen. When he thinks he has spotted it, the Reverend fires his gun and sets in motion an avalanche that blankets the region.

Like a camera angle zooming to another scene, we are then transported to a different storyline, where the spotlight shines on Fridrik Fridjonsson, a naturalist, who must bury a young girl he has been caring for. This young girl was called Abba and was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The story, then, moves backwards to give us a glimpse of the girl’s life up to moment she dies. It’s a heartbreaking tale showcasing Abba’s hard life, and the heavy burden that Fridrik shoulders as he is unable to turn a blind eye to her suffering.

What is remarkable is how Sjón masterfully interweaves these two seemingly disparate storylines, to reveal a surprising twist in the final pages. 

With concise prose that is both gorgeous and sinister, The Blue Fox is an impressive interlacing of lives, a spellbinding fable that is part mystery part fairytale that displays the dark recesses of the human heart. In the Baldur sections, Sjón takes us inside the minds of the hunter and hunted as they try to outmaneuver each other. More often than not, the reader’s sympathies lie with the blue fox as we secretly hope it escapes the Reverend’s mode of attack. With the Abba story thread, the book delves into the themes of human cruelty, the stigma associated with a genetic disorders and how society is so unkind to people born with them.  

Sjón’s prose is as sparse, crisp and still as the glacial surroundings depicted within. There is a lot of white, empty space around the printed words on most pages, which is symbolic of the stark, icy and wintry backdrop against which the book is set. Much of the prose throughout the book reads like lyrical poems.

It is a novella of surreal beauty interspersed with moments of volatile darkness that can strike as suddenly and violently as the avalanche triggered by the Reverend’s gun.

I simply adored this atmospheric novella, and I’ll end with a quote from the book that describes the stunning Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), a natural phenomenon I was lucky to witness a few years ago, north of the Arctic Circle.

In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering golden dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.

Subsequently, I have gone on to read his From the Mouth of a Whale, which I remember liking immensely at the time, but do not recall much of it now, unfortunately!

And the Wind Sees All – Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (tr. Bjorg Arnadottir & Andrew Cauthery)

The ‘Home in Exile’ series from Peirene Press is a real hit. I had loved both Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra as soon as they were released, but somehow missed And the Wind Sees All, the third in the series. I am glad that I read it now because this was a gorgeously written novella.

And The Wind Sees All is set in a small, Icelandic fishing village called Valeyri. We are transported into this region by the wind, which comes in off the sea…

I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.

As Kata, a choir conductor wearing a polka dot dress, bicycles her way to the concert hall, she passes through the village lanes and is seen by almost all the residents as she flits past their homes.

This framework gives the book an impressionistic feel, as it is composed of short vignettes on the characters that make up the village. It is almost as the entire lives of the villagers are encapsulated in the single time horizon of two minutes (that it takes Kata as she cycles past).

As is the case in small communities, everyone pretty much knows everybody else, it is difficult for secrets to stay hidden for long. But the village somehow accepts who you are and moves on.

The first chapter focuses on Kata and we get a glimpse of her relationship with Andreas suffused with sadness and missed opportunities. Although Kata becomes merely a presence in the subsequent chapters, the sense of lost chances remains.

Love and loss

A sense of profound loss dominates the lives of many of the characters. There’s Arni Moneybags later nicknamed Arni Going Places, with a successful advertising career under his belt. He has an instinct for creating stellar campaigns, and captivating the minds of the audiences. But his relationship with his partner gradually deteriorates. While Arni is glued to his computer, Agusta increasingly withdraws into herself until one day she disappears.

We are also introduced to husband and wife Gudjon and Sveinsina, who are in the same room physically, but miles apart in thoughts. Sveinsina, particularly, reminisces about her first husband Biggi, a guitarist, and how she lost him so young when their son Teddi was only five.

She is thinking about Biggi and the long winter when he dies, that winter in Reykjavik in that godforsaken block of flats, and Teddi was only five and followed his daddy out onto the balcony and watched him climb over the rail on the seventh floor and jump, watched his daddy briefly soar through the air – soar through his white and wonderful dimension – before hitting the pavement.

In another vignette, Gunnar finds the presence of his childhood sweetheart, who he meets after many, many years, almost too painful to bear. Josa, meanwhile, ruminates on her relationship and subsequent marriage with Kalli before he abandons her for another woman Sigga. And yet, they all manage to co-exist in that small community.

Cast of varied characters

More people and sketches of their lives abound. A lot of the characters are in some way related. After her husband Kalli leaves her, Josa is aware that there is life outside but prefers an existence of solitude indoors. Her one contact is her son Gummi, who occasionally visits her to cook a sumptuous meal, and during one of these visits admits to being in relationship with a woman during the height of the Balkan War only to lose contact with her later.

Svenni is an industrious foreman in the factory machine room, polite and respected. And yet he has those days when he calls in sick and holes himself up in the house with bottles of drink.

Sigga is married to Kalli after he left Josa and although she is welcomed in the village wonders whether she really fits in.  

There is one particular piece called the Aroma of Ashes, which focuses on two well-to-do couples who are also best friends. Their lives are filled with expensive holidays and family get-togethers. We learn that while one of one of the couples has a stable marriage, the other pair has a strained relationship.

The sanctity of village life

Is life better in a bigger city such as the capital Reykjavik? Svenni’s parents certainly didn’t think so. Settled in Reykjavik, they send their then 11-year old son to the countryside to appreciate the virtues of hard work and toughen up in the process.

His parents thought that it would be much better for a boy to spend the summer months in the countryside than on the streets of Reykjavik, which would just mean hanging about like a slob and losing his appetite. He would become a pale, apathetic couch potato. In the country, he would find out what real life was all about.

For Teddi, possibly haunted by his father’s suicide when Teddi was five, the village and his vibrant family are beacons he hangs on to remain sane.

As you make for the harbor, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is to aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.

Complex lives

And the Wind Sees All ultimately shows us that human lives are complex, whether you stay in a bucolic fishing village or in a fast paced larger city.  Indeed, people staying in small communities also have their share of disappointments, relationship issues, happiness and success. This is beautifully expressed in each of the vignettes, which cumulatively leaves a much larger impression on the reader of how the characters have intricate inner lives.

A gorgeous gem

And the Wind Sees All then is an exquisite novella where the language is lush and lyrical. In descriptions of both man and nature, the author’s writing is rich heightening the feeling of a calm exterior beneath which secrets and emotions simmer.  

All this movement: the sea is eternal, it nourishes, heals, rinses, gives and takes, is made of currents that have been in motion for millions of years, slipping beneath each other in one continuous swirl, because the sea is, above all, movement.

Although not as hard hitting as either Soviet Milk or Shadows on the Tundra in the ‘Home in Exile’ series, slivers of sadness, nevertheless, seep through each sketch dedicated to a character or group of characters in the novel.

All in all, Peirene Press has clearly scored a hat-trick with this particular series.