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Sjón: Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox)

This is a short but very fine tale. The story starts in 1883, with the Reverend Baldur Skuggason out hunting a vixen, a blue fox. We later learn that he has abrogated to himself the monopoly in the area of selling fox skins, a valuable commodity, with the rare blue fox pelt being particularly valuable. We follow a wonderful tale of hunter and hunted. They have to deal with blizzards and wait out the other, the Reverend digging himself a hole in the snow, the fox curled round a rock, which makes her almost invisible. The pursuit lasts a long time, with the Reverend almost losing the vixen, before spotting her again. An avalanche does not help matters. Fortunately, the Reverend is tough and determined, well wrapped-up and with a plentiful supply of food.

But there is another story here, seemingly separate but, as we later learn, linked. Some fifteen years before, a ship had foundered on the rocks. The locals had to wait before they could there. The cargo consisted entirely of fish liver oil. They were not terribly excited with their loot but managed to ship it ashore. Only when they got deep into the hold, did they hear a noise. Three brave men entered and found a girl, manacled, who had clearly been there for the sailors’ pleasure. The girl had Down’s syndrome. Normally, children born with Down’s syndrome were quietly killed by the nurse or midwife. Very occasionally, this did not happen and they survived, to the disgust of their parents, as they required a lot of care and could not help much on the farm. This girl is clearly one of the survivors. Meanwhile, Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, a son of farmers, has gone to study pharmacology in Copenhagen and later joined the Elefant Pharmacy, where he has done well. He has been involved with a group of young men called lotus-eaters, who modelled their way of life on the poetry of French writers such as Baudelaire, de Nerval, Gautier and de Musset. In 1868, his parents died of pneumonia, within nine days of one another. He returns to Iceland to sell the farm, planning to return as soon as possible to Denmark. However, on the way back, he stops at the bailiff’s. He hears a noise from a small shed and in the shed he finds a young woman with Down’s syndrome. It is, of course, the girl from the ship. She had been locked up, apparently for killing her baby.

Fridrik takes her in as his maid/assistant and he is the only person who treats her as a human being. She is formally named Hafdis Jonsdottir but known as Abba. We know little about their life together for, by the time we first meet her, she is dead. Halfdan Atlason, described as the Reverend’s own eejit, is, he thinks, engaged to her. He has come to Brekka, Fridrik’s farm, to pick up a coffin, which the Reverend will bury. He is shocked when Fridrik tells him that the coffin contains Abba. However, even after death, Fridrik treats Abba well. He even produces a list of the words she uses and their meaning, which he sends to a friend.

On one level, this book has a political dimension. Sjón is highly critical of the religious stranglehold on the people of Iceland and how the religious authorities mistreat the ordinary people. He also shows compassion for the handicapped, showing that those with Down’s syndrome can make a valuable contribution. But he also gives us an excellent story, with a strange relationship and an epic struggle between man, beast and nature, which makes this book another first-class work from Sjón.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Bjartur
First published in English 2008 by Telegram