The Whispering Muse

The Whispering Muse - SjonWhat do you do if you find out that your great grandfather was a Nazi? And not just any old Nazi either, but someone who worked in Berlin during WWII reading their propaganda in your language for broadcast back to your country? Well, if you are a writer, you write a novel about it, and take him down a peg.

Of course I would not have known that Sjón had based his book on an actual ancestor had I not heard him talk at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath recently. I can also tell you that he has exaggerated his great grandfather’s character a little bit. Here’s how he introduces the book’s central character.

I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journey devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race. It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years.

The original was apparently just a couple of essays. Great grandfather was a herring inspector in Copenhagen for much of this life. I do not know what one inspects herrings for. Suitability for pickling, I guess.

Haraldsson’s little hobby proves popular with wealthy people in Scandinavia, and as a result, late in life, he finds himself invited to sail on the maiden voyage of a merchant ship owned by the father of one of his admirers. He’s keen to lecture whatever audience he has (mainly the ship’s officers) on the social and health benefits of fish consumption. Sadly he finds that another member of the crew is far more interesting than he is.

Caeneus was one of the crew of the Argo. He sailed with Jason, Herakles, Bellerophon, Perseus, Theseus, Orpheus, Atalanta and all of those other heroes of antiquity. His memory of those days is not quite what it might be. He has, after all, spent centuries as a herring gull. That can’t be good for the brain. But fortunately he has a means of being reminded of the details of his adventures. And these days he is serving as Second Mate on the newly launched MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.

Let’s face it, which one would you rather listen to: Haraldsson or Caeneus?

It gets even more interesting if you know a little about Caeneus. He was born Caenis, a princess of Thessaly. But, as Ovid explains in the Metamorphoses, being a princess was not something that appealed to this young person. Caenis steadfastly refused all offers of marriage until, while walking on a beach one day, the princess was spotted by Poseidon who, after the manner of Greek gods, was immediately moved to rape. After the evil deed was done, Poseidon was stricken with remorse and offered Caenis a wish in recompense. Somewhat to the god’s surprise, the princess asked to be turned into a man so as never to have to suffer such indignity again. Poseidon was so impressed that he also made Caeneus impervious to edged weapons, thereby ensuring him of a career as a hero.

What struck me about this story is that Caenis never shows any interest in being a princess. It’s not just rape that is the problem, it is sexual relations with men in general. And Caenis did not ask to go off and join the Amazons, or be a great woman warrior like Atalanta. The request was specifically to become a man. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that Caeneus is the world’s first trans man literary hero. I’m not the first person to have done so.

Sjón spends much of the book telling parts of the legend of the Argonauts. But there’s not much point in simply re-telling the story. Lots of people have done that. He wants to tell an interesting tale, relate it to his Nordic homeland, and use the story to help teach Valdimar Haraldsson a lesson. This is probably much more interesting if you are a mythology geek like I am, but the stories are good all the same.

In addition Sjón appears to be suggesting that exposure to some of the great myths of mankind can affect the most awful of men, perhaps even redeem them. I like to think that he’s right.

The Whispering Muse is quite a short book — possibly even a novella. I guess we may find out next year, because I’m hoping that the World Fantasy Award jury will take a look at this book. I’ll also, of course, be forwarding it to the Translation Awards jury. Victoria Cribb has done a fine job with the story.

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