In Denmark, 1949, a retired Icelandic eccentric is invited on a cruise. He’s an honored guest, or so he believes, and is seated at the captain’s table, where he and his fellow passengers are treated to a nightly tale from the second mate, a tale that grows increasingly fantastic as the voyage progresses. Before long, the boundary between the mate’s story and the passengers’ experience, as well as between reality and myth, is worn thin, and the elderly voyager returns home a changed man.
From its basic outline, “The Whispering Muse” sounds fairly simple, but that simplicity is deceptive. Its author, who goes by the single name of Sjón, is also a poet and a lyricist, having written songs with his Icelandic compatriot Bjork. In this short novel, he employs a similar mix of imagery and allusion to create a credible alternative world that draws heavily on the seafaring myths of that island nation, and on the works of Ovid and Euripides. People — especially that second mate — are not what they seem, and everything is capable of change.
At first, such transformation appears unlikely. Valdimar Haraldsson, the elderly eccentric, is the kind of close-minded character who views life only through his own narrow interests. These, he tells us in a matter-of-fact voice, are seafood and “dietetics,” and his life work has been publishing a journal on “the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.” His first impressions of the cruise, therefore, revolve around its menu, and his disappointment at the meat-heavy meals served by the ship’s renowned chef appears to be his strongest emotion. But even if Haraldsson seems to be unmoved — and, at times, annoyed — by the mate’s story, the reader will discern its growing effect on him. By the book’s jolly conclusion, a contemporary metamorphosis worthy of Ovid has occurred, leading its narrator to note: “My neighbors say I have changed since I came home from my voyage. And I respond with the following question: ‘What is the point of traveling if not to broaden your mind?’ ”
Whether readers will have the same experience is an open question. This book, translated from the Icelandic and released in this country with two earlier Sjón novels, has a light and lyrical quality about it. Relayed in Haraldsson’s no-nonsense voice, its bizarre events come across as almost commonplace, like the unfolding of a fairy tale, and that makes its magical realism easy to swallow.
At times its absurdities — the mate’s multiple transformations and the strange goings-on that Haraldsson observes — stretch even further, taking on the dreamlike quality of surrealism. Although the obvious comparison is to Jorge Luis Borges, Sjón’s work may be closer to that of surrealist painter and author Leonora Carrington, whose great short novel, “The Hearing Trumpet,’’ also mingled the mundane and the absurd. But where Carrington made the journey of her elderly protagonist utterly credible despite a post-apocalyptic conclusion that involves werewolves and the destruction of the world, Sjón occasionally falters. Too many loose ends — from the mysterious deaths of Haraldsson’s wives to the disappearance of his luggage — raise questions that are never again addressed. It’s as if Sjón, as well as his crotchety hero, were distracted by these amusing diversions and couldn’t bear to give them up.
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux is looking to break in Sjón in the United States, no doubt counting on the author’s connection with Bjork to raise interest. He may not need it; “The Whispering Muse” may not be perfect, but it has some new wonders for the curious, and old Haraldsson will win over many readers before the end.