Finding Darkness Within the Humor of Sjón’s The Whispering Muse

When I scanned my TBR Stack for a book to read this week, Sjon’s 2005 title, The Whispering Muse, jumped right out at me. I’ve been meaning to read Sjón for years (any Björk lyricist is OK by me) and I was intrigued by the way The Whispering Muse plucked figures from Greek mythology, mashed them up with Norse counterparts, and rolled the whole thing into a weird, marvelously deadpan modern-ish story, which then weaves into a much darker modern-ish story. Here is the opening sentence of this book:

I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.

Now that is the way to open a book if you want me to keep reading.

One of the purposes of this column for me (and the reason that I love working on Genre in the Mainstream as well) is exploring the different types of stories that can all fit under the umbrella term “novel.” Case in point: Sjón’s work. Sjón is the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, an Icelandic poet who, as I mentioned, wrote lyrics for the Sugarcubes and Björk, as well as writing the lyrics for Lars Von Trier’s rollicking laugh riot, Dancer in the Dark.

But back to The Whispering Muse. The year is 1949. Valdimar Haraldsson is an expert on the intricate relationship between fish consumption and Norse culture. He contributes to a journal called Fisk og Kultur, writing exhaustive articles on how and why a fish-based diet led to the obvious superiority of the Nordic race. He corroborates his theories with examples from the similarly fish-based Japanese culture. If there is one thing I love it’s a ridiculous narrator who doesn’t know he’s ridiculous. As if the journal Fisk og Kultur wasn’t enough, his memoir is called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, because of course it is. His fish love has led to a unique opportunity: Hermann Jung-Olsen, the heir to a fleet of ships, has invited him to join the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen on a voyage into the fjords of Norway.

But Haraldsson is not well-suited to life at sea. He’s annoyed by his lodgings, he enters into a feud with the only woman aboard—”the purser’s woman,” he calls her—and, worst of all, he misses his daily diet of fish. Even when the crew would prefer beef or pork, Haraldsson catches his own fish and insists the ship’s chef build menus around them, and remains hilariously blind to everyone’s annoyance.

Haraldsson is also wary of the second mate, a man named Caeneus, who is almost certainly the mythological warrior from ancient Greek mythology who met his end (supposedly) in a battle with some centaurs:

He’s the one in the middle, arguing with a centaur about food digestion.

Throughout The Whispering Muse Caeneus reveals a version of his history that is close to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which he began life as a lovely and independent maiden named Caenis. Poseidon became obsessed with her, waited for her to hike into a cove alone, came up out of the sea and raped her. The god was surprised to discover that she was upset by this, and offered to grant her a wish to make up for what he’d done. She asked him to make her a man so she could never be raped again. He did so, and even added the extra metaphorical edge of making her skin impervious to sharp objects, so essentially she could never be penetrated by anything – not by spears, arrows, swords, nor men. Once male, Caenis took the name Caeneus, and took off with Jason and the other Argonauts in the pursuit of the Golden Fleece, fought bravely, suffered terrible injury, and joined his crewmates when they spent ten months on the Isle of Lemnos tending to the needs of its all-female population. How and when he ends up as second mate of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen is not a tale he tells… but then, he doesn’t seem to choose his own stories. Rather they are chosen by the piece of wood he carries with him, a fragment from the hull of the Argo. The rest of the crew listens to these stories each night, and no one comments on the sheer weirdness of working beside an ancient Greek mythological figure.

Each night after dinner Caeneus regales them with his tales… until the night Haraldasson insists on delivering one of his “Fish and Culture” lectures. (“I declined the starter—egg mayonnaise with grated vegetables on a lettuce leaf—taking the opportunity to go over the opening of my speech instead. Although I can, without recourse to notes, deliver lengthy impromptu lectures on the relationship between fish consumption and culture, this evening’s effort had to be rather better than that.”) It lives up to its promise, being an absurd recounting of how fish consumption led to the Nordic people being a superior race, rivaled only by the “innate energy and industriousness of the fish-eating nation of Japan.” Much as I’d like to, I’m not going to quote the entire thing, but here’s an excerpt:

It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and show are endowed. There is a vast corpus of heroic tales devotes to their feats, from ancient days down to our own. They number in their thousands. We need only quote Claudius, who declared, “They were proud of their height and looked down on the Romans for being so short.”

You can see why maybe the crew prefers Mate Caeneus’ tales of mythological ribaldry.

Now here’s the interesting thing buried within all the silliness: everyone in the book is recovering from World War II. Haraldsson himself worked in propaganda, broadcasting the news, in Icelandic, from Berlin, a job that he doesn’t really comment on. The purser’s partner nannied for a family in Poland throughout the war, but through a series of terrible circumstances was kidnapped by Russian soldiers and spent several years in a German brothel before embarking on a new life in Scandinavia. Her story is recounted twice removed, first by the purser, and then with the flat, bemused third person of Haraldsson, who latches on to an oddly specific detail rather than engaging with the ordeal of a multiple rape survivor: “Four years later the purser found the woman in a whorehouse in Königsberg. The day before, he had acquired a leg of dried ham, and in exchange for this he was allowed to take the woman away with him.” But towards the end of the novel, when Caeneus recounts his life as a young woman and describes Poseidon’s attack with relentless detail, the narrative goes fully into first person, and the writing takes on an urgency that was lacking even in the battle scenes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about god-sex lately. This is mostly due to watching the first four episodes of American Gods, and looking back over the careers of Neil Gaiman and Bryan Fuller. I’m not going to spoil anything, but Fuller at least has said that one of the positive aspects of depicting sex between humans and gods is that it removes the fear of STDs or AIDs. (Obviously pregnancy is still a concern, but Leda appeared in last week’s book, not this one.) But in the case of rape, the divine element also leads to a surrealism that renders the experience somehow even more horrifying: when Caenis tries to call for help, Poseidon spits seaweed into her mouth; when she tries to crawl away she’s met by lacerating coral and barnacles; even her eyes are penetrated when shark oil drips down from Poseidon’s hair. (This becomes even more awful when you consider that Caeneus then spends years of his life on the sea, essentially surrounded by his rapist, and that even now as the book is unfolding he’s chosen to be the second mate on an ocean voyage.) After Caeneus finishes this part of his story, the purser’s partner breaks down in tears. Everyone politely waits for her, and the story only continues once she gives Caeneus the OK to keep going.

This scene, which comes late in the book, undercuts everything before it with a weight I wasn’t expecting. Everyone on this ship has been traumatized by the war. While Caeneus’ stories have occasionally been violent in various ways, they’ve also seemed like fantasies—his tales of the Golden Fleece, Grey-Eyed Athena, chariot races, and the insatiable women of Lemnos are far removed from the realities of post-war Europe. Even though the crew apparently accepts Caeneus as the legendary figure, they listen to the stories simply as stories. But when presented with the brutality of Poseidon’s rape, and the raw pain of the only woman aboard, the whole narrative becomes, well, real. I mean this in a good way—this moment grounds the story in reality, and suddenly it felt like the book came into sharper focus: we’ve been following a man who worked for the Nazis during World War II, and who is constantly touting the superiority of a blonde, blue-eyes race of people, and saying they should ally with the Japanese.

After hearing what happened to the purser’s partner, even a man as prosaic as Haraldsson is moved to say, “Four years had passed since the end of the great conflict but we still couldn’t believe that humanity had won.” And yet… Sjón shows us a woman, forced into sexual slavery, whose story is retold without her permission, as though it’s an interesting anecdote. The author takes the time and pages to tell us about the people who work in the harbor, and show just how badly they’re being exploited by their employers. Even Caeneus becomes not just a mythological figure, but a rape survivor, a lonely man who has outlived all of the friends and loved one he remembers each night during his stories. So how much has humanity truly “won” if there’s still so much pain cascading through what is, truly, a hilarious book? If even a book that makes me laugh on every page can still hold so much sadness?

Perhaps I’ve gotten too heavy again. I seem to do that with all of my writing lately—essays that are supposed to be light and funny turn dark. I certainly don’t mean to cast this book as anything other than a delight, because that’s what it is (possibly even more fun? Sjón’s New Yorker article on the book’s inspirations) and I think, whether you prefer ham or cod, Scandinavian tales or Greek, The Whispering Muse is a worthy addition to anyone’s TBR stack.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come give her reading suggestions on Twitter!

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