‘The Blue Fox’ is a poetic masterpiece

Icelandic author Sjon’s modernist novel comes to the United States

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Farrar Straus and Giroux/Courtesy

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“Poetic” may be one of the only words to concretely describe “The Blue Fox,” a novel written in Icelandic in 2004 but published in the United States for the first time this year. The novel is written by Sjon (pronounced Shee-yon), a poet, author and part-time lyricist for Bjork. Well-known in Iceland, Sjon has won countless awards, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2005, an award equivalent to the Booker Prize.

“The Blue Fox” takes readers on a 19th-century journey through a vast, glacial landscape as a hunter seeks out the eponymous blue fox — a mysterious and elusive creature. The novel then shifts gears as it focuses on Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, an Icelandic man who discovers a young girl with Down syndrome aboard an abandoned ship and decides to care for her.

The novel itself is a quick read (pages often have only a small, centered paragraph), but the book’s opaque quality of time and wildly imaginative descriptions prove it to be a complicated piece of literature.

“The Blue Fox” is not merely a work of fiction. It delves into the very heart of the adaptable nature of modern literature. A heroic saga and fairy tale all at once, it questions traditional storylines and time frames. Though it is set in the 1800s, there is an element of modernity within the pages. Perhaps the inclusion of Abba, the 14-year-old with Down syndrome, lends a hand in characterizing the novel as contemporary, or maybe it is the jumbled time scheme, which is reminiscent of the modernist and post-modernist literary movements.

Though whiffs of modernity are traceable, the novel for the most part reads like an epic poem. Set in the all-consuming, spellbinding Nordic landscape, “The Blue Fox” holds a mysterious, fable-like quality, causing the book to linger somewhere between legend and fairytale. Its moving message about the power of kindness is executed through beautifully crafted sentences.

One example is a description of the sky during the fox hunt: “In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils.” The magical quality that saturates the sentences is rhythmic and steady, like quietly falling snow on Icelandic peaks.

This poetic nature of the novel is not surprising. Previously, Sjon has worked alongside Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork to write lyrics to many of her hit songs including “Isobel,” “Joga” and most recently “Virus,” which was released on 2011’s album Biophilia.

Lyrics in “Joga” include the hauntingly beautiful phrases: “You don’t have to speak / I feel emotional landscapes.” These lyrics can be applied to “The Blue Fox.” Like Bjork’s songs, the novel is highly atmospheric and imaginative, combining indie cred with truly talented storytelling.

It is interesting to note that while Sjon remains relatively unknown in America, he is quite famous in Iceland. Besides working with Bjork on lyrics for her personal albums, he also wrote lyrics for songs featured in the film “Dancer in the Dark,” in which Bjork and Catherine Deneuve starred. He worked on “I’ve Seen It All,” a single on the movie’s soundtrack, featuring Thom Yorke which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000.

Success with “The Blue Fox,” which has been translated into 25 languages, can also be attributed to Victoria Cribb, who translated Sjon’s work from Icelandic to English. Though it is impossible to tell exactly what is lost in translation, the ethereal and magical elements of the text remain.

The compelling novel reads like a Sigur Ros song: melodic and supernatural. It takes on lilting forms, rising and falling harmoniously like the snow-clad Icelandic mountains in which the novel is set.

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].

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