By Olivia Snaije
The Icelandic writer Sjón, whose international breakthrough came with his novel The Blue Fox, is a renaissance man. Sjón started his career as a poet at age 15, and took part in Reykjavik’s cultural explosion in the 1980s when “there was no hierarchy in the arts.”
He was a member of a neo-surrealist group called Medusa. “We then all became anarcho-surrealists,” he added.
It was during this period that he met singer-songwriter Björk and began his collaboration writing lyrics for her that has lasted until today; Sjón has three songs on Björk’s newly released album Biophilia. In 2000, one of his songs for Björk was used in the Lars von Trier’s film “Dancer in the Dark” and nominated for an Academy Award. Sjón went to Hollywood for the ceremony. “That was one of the experiences in my life that I can truly call surreal,” he said.
Sjón is not foreign to the world of film as he also pens screenplays. He wrote a screenplay for a film that made the rounds of horror film festivals several years ago entitled “Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.”
“It’s a nitty-gritty splatter film, a dark comedy about innocent tourists massacred by disgruntled whale hunters,” he commented.
The Blue Fox, a story about a priest hunting for an enigmatic blue fox, won the Nordic Literary Prize and has been translated into 21 languages. Sjón is currently finishing his eighth novel, which is the last volume of a trilogy that he began in 1994. His UK publisher, Telegram Books, has world rights to his works in English. Besides The Blue Fox, Telegram has published From the Mouth of the Whale and next year will bring out The Whispering Muse (working title) that was published in Iceland in 2005 and has already been translated into six languages.
“It’s the story of an 80-year-old guy, a former editor of Fish and Culture magazine that focuses on the Nordic race and its consumption of fish. He is invited on the maiden journey of a ship exporting paper pulp from Norway to Russia. One of the crew members claims to have been on the Argo with Jason. They begin to tell each other tales,” said Sjón.
Sjón’s inspiration has always come from melding ancient Icelandic traditions with the avant-garde. “I go into pockets of Icelandic history . . . I love to bring diverse cosmologies alive on the page. I mix myths and crackpot theories together with my need to tell a story.”
Working with 17th century Icelandic texts is also a motivation for Sjón, who said he enjoys managing “the peculiarities of the Icelandic language and its twists and turns.”
This is not easy for his translators, he acknowledges, but because of his excellent grasp of English, he has been able to work closely with Victoria Cribb, his English translator. In other languages Sjón said, “of course I can’t know if the translation is good but I can tell if the person is a good translator by the questions they ask. I am open to working relationships with translators and always find a way.”
At Frankfurt, Sjón said he was enjoying meeting some of his foreign publishers for the first time from Serbia, Portugal, Lithuania and Turkey, where The Blue Fox was published last week. His experience with foreign publishers has taught him that, “it’s better to go with small publishers who are truly dedicated.”
Sjón is currently working on an adaptation of his novel The Whispering Muse for opera (his wife is a mezzo soprano) and is putting the finishing touches to his eighth novel.
In the end, said Sjón, “Man is a narrative animal.”