It’s really a novella and a dense, complex and surreal little book on top of which it’s beautifully written. The word minimalist fits exactly. Perhaps also some magical realism – I don’t know – It’s historical fiction with some realism at it’s base but infused with the stuff of fairy tales and delusions, maybe magical realism or possibly allegorical themes. Brilliant in its unexpected depth and plot surprises.
Sjon is an Icelandic novelist, poet and musician. It’s too bad this book is translated because poetry loses a lot in translation and Sjon’s poetics are probably more apparent in the original language. This translation is wonderful though –
In the first few very short chapters, if that’s what they are, there are only two characters – a man hunting a fox, a vixen. The date is January 9-11, 1883. The point of view might switch between them – one being a hunter, the other the hunted. The man starts out from Botn, a valley on the northwest end of Iceland, and moves south. The man has a gun, food for days and
knows how to create shelter in the blizzards. He considers the vixen to be a “daughter of Reynard.” Reynard the fox was a mythological fox of Europe. There are other allusions to a couple other fairy tales – The Snow Queen, Jack Frost and old Norse mythology – Odin. The symbolism of the fox is important later in the novel and I believe she contributes to the sense of magical realism – the post-colonial element.
Also, of interest before I get too far – The title is ambiguous. On the one hand it refers to a phenomenon of the popular legends – the offspring of a cat and a fox – and at the same time it means an evil spirit (or a sinister person). The French title for The Blue Fox is “Le moindre des mondes”, or, literally, ” the least of worlds” (a reference to Iceland?) The original title, in Icelandic, is “Skugga-Baldur” which means “Baldur the Shadow” or “Shadow-Baldur.” The man in the first chapter, killing the fox, is named Baldur Skuggason or “son of shadow.” And Baldur is the name of a good Norse god. Fwiw, Baldur Skuggason is NOT a good guy.
Part 2 takes place on January 8-9, 1883, a day earlier than Part 1. It’s now set on the east coast of Iceland and there are several characters. Fridrik B. Fridjonsson who has returned to dispose of his parents’ home after their deaths, Halfdan Atlason, his neighbor who has Down’s Syndrome (“Baldur’s eedjit”) and Abba who is deceased, Fridrick’s helper for a short time.
The story then goes into several back stories regarding how Fridrick left Iceland for Copenhagen but returned when his parents died. He returned only a couple months after Abba got to Iceland and Fridrik never left again. The plot revolves around two men, Fririk and Baldur Skuggason, the new rather brutal preacher. A bit at a time more is learned about Abba.
Sjon has a very sophisticated and stylized but minimalist tone to his writing:
“No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.” (p. 64)
And the narrative is lightly sprinkled with creative and appropriate metaphors:
“… the winter sun floated over the wilderness, fat and red as the yolk of a raven’s egg.” (p. 82)
The ravens Reverend Baldur comes across in Section 3 could represent or symbolize many things – evil and death, tricksters and thieving, and/or prophesy-wisdom. Having two lightens the effect, more merriment – probably a trickster. The vixen symbolizes something else – not quite sure what.
Nordic Council Prizes (great review)