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Sjón: Argóarflísin (The Whispering Muse)

This is another fine tale by Sjón, mixing in myth and legend, with a more conventional story and taking the side, in part, of the common man oppressed by the powers that be. The story is narrated by Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson is something of a dubious character. He had spent World War II in Germany, reading the news in Icelandic. Prior to that he had made his name by publishing seventeen volumes of a small journal devoted to the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race, called (in Danish, as it was published in Copenhagen) Fisk og Kultur, as well as his own memoirs, called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector. His racism extends to his own countrymen (the majority of my ideas would be far too newfangled for my countrymen, indeed would pass way over their heads) and to others (he will later refer to the Yellow Peril.) However, it is primarily based on the Nazi idea of the superiority of the Northern races, albeit for somewhat different reasons from the Nazis (the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean). One of his supporters was Hermann Jung-Olsen, son of Magnus Jung-Olsen, a rich Danish shipping magnate. Hermann was murdered in a brawl in a Viennese Bierkeller on the last day of the War. Now, in 1949, Magnus has invited Haraldsson on a cruise, the maiden voyage of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, going to Norway to pick up raw paper, to take to Izmir, in Turkey and thence to Soviet Georgia.

As this was a cargo ship, Haraldsson was the only passenger so, at the captain’s table for meals, there were, in addition to the captain himself, five others – the first and second mates, the first engineer and the purser and a woman, whom Haraldsson assumed was the purser’s wife but later turned out to be the purser’s mistress. We learn her sad story later on. One of the issues Haraldsson has is the food. The shipping line is famed for its food and high quality food is served up at every meal. However, it is all meat-based. Haraldsson is shocked that there is no fish served, not least because the Jung-Olsen family was supposedly very keen on fish. When they arrive in Norway and dock in a fjord, while the paper is processed and loaded, Haraldsson enquires about the fishing. He is told that there are virtually no fish in the fjord though some stray cod may come in later in the year. This does not put him off and he goes fishing himself, finally catching a seven pound cod. He gives this to the cook, who serves it up several times. All the cod meals are disappointing, insipid, flavourless and not, in Haraldsson’s view, properly cooked. All welcome the return to the meat-based diet. However, the key event at the meals is the tale-telling. All sailors love to tell stories, Haraldsson states, and, in this case, there is one who particularly does. He is Caeneus, second mate on this ship but who was one of Jason‘s Argonauts. While telling the tale, he puts a piece of what looks like driftwood to his ear. We later learn that it is a piece of the Argo, which Caeneus found years later in a ship graveyard (and where he also found the ageing and decrepit Jason) and that Athena speaks through it as she spoke to Jason to guide him and the Argonauts.

Caeneus tells his tale over the course of the journey, often to the disgust of Haraldsson, who was not very much taken with it. The other passengers, however, very much enjoyed it, though Haraldsson did come round in the end, as it is he alone that hears the tale of the driftwood and Jason’s last days. The story focuses on just one part of the Argonauts’ adventures – their arrival at the Island of Lemnos. The men arrive, hoping, in particular, to get something to drink but when they enter the taverns on the shore, they find them deserted and barren. They soon find out that the island is inhabited only by women, the women claiming that the men had all left because they did not consider the women attractive enough. The speaking bow advised Jason to leave at once but he saw a huge advantage in having an island full of available women. However, the women emit an awful stench, apparently caused by Aphrodite, as punishment for driving their men away. (In the actual legend, the women of Lemnos had murdered their husbands. Aphrodite had caused the stench as the women had neglected their worship of her. The stench had persuaded the husbands to take concubines from a neighbouring island and, as a result, the women had killed their husbands. Therefore either Caeneus and/or the women who told him the story are unreliable narrators.) Caeneus continues with the story of the Argonauts’ stay on Lemnos which lasts ten months and involves Caeneus himself getting seriously injured and temporarily reverting to his original, female form. Sjón even throws in an Icelandic saga – the Völsunga saga – told by a poetess on the Island of Lemnos and which, as Caeneus states, is actually predicting the fate of Jason. The story-telling is interrupted only once – when Haraldsson persuades the captain to let him give his lecture on fish and how it made the Nordic race superior. The lecture does not go down well.

There is one other key event. While the paper is being processed, a worker is badly injured. The workers rush out and carry him to the director’s car, the only available vehicle to transport him to hospital. The director, seeing that his expensive car is about to be used to carry a bleeding man, rushes out to stop this but one of the workmen strikes him and knocks him out. This, of course, has repercussions but it is clear that Sjón and the crew of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen sympathise with the workmen. Inevitably, the voyage takes a strange turn but Haraldsson lives to tell the tale and is a better person for having made the voyage.

Once again, this is an excellent story from Sjón, mixing myth, distorted myth and reality, with some political views thrown in, to give us an excellent tale, beautifully told. Some critics feel that it is not as good as his other novels translated into English but I disagree, as I think this one works very well, whether you know the Jason and the Argonauts story or not. Haraldsson is deliberately not an endearing character but even he changes as a result of his voyage. We get Sjón’s usual myths, in this case two known myths but somewhat retold, we get his surrealistic touch at the end of the book and we get the characters round the captain’s table, who enable us to see Haraldsson in a somewhat different light, quite a lot for a short book.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Bjartur
First published in English 2012 by Telegram
Translated by Victoria Cribb