A very strange, dark and beautifully written short novel by Icelandic author Sjón. The prose is simply beautiful and takes the reader right to the time and place in which the story unfolds — over ten days in the winter of 1883. The mood of the novel reminds me a lot of the American author Jack London (and in some ways Herman Melville) but London or Melville ever got this dark. (Just for the record, as to whether or not these two authors influenced Sjón is unknown). Throw in a touch of magical realism and you have here a story that not only examines the darker side of human nature but also treads into the territory of fable and myth.
The principal characters here are the naturalist Fridrik B. Fridjónsson, a man who studied natural history at the University of Copenhagen, who travels to Iceland in order to sell his parents‘ farm after their deaths. His plan is to return to Denmark but before he does he encounters a young woman named Hafdís Jónsdóttir (also known as “Abbas”). Hafdís has down syndrome and she was found aboard the remains of a shipwreck along the Icelandic shore. She had been sold to a group of sailors who then went on to sexually abuse her. Instead of selling his parents‘ farm, Fridrik decides to make a life there, taking in Hafdís as both servant and lover. When Hafdís dies, Fridrik pays a local priest, the Reverend Baldur Skuggason, to give Hafdís a funeral and burial. Skuggson’s servant Halfdan Atlason — who also suffers from Down’s Syndrome — arrives to pick up the coffin to bring back to the church for burial. After the burial, the priest sets off into the wilderness to hunt a blue fox, an animal said to have “mysterious” qualities. The fox more or less outwits the priest, at least initially, then an unexpected disaster occurs and the priest slowly begins to lose his humanity.
The story is a non-linear narrative, beginning with the priest’s hunt for the elusive blue fox, then doubling back to the story of the naturalist and his servant/lover’s death, then to the circumstances that befall the priest after the hunt is finished. It is the piecing together of these two seemingly unrelated narratives that make this novel the special one that it is. The reader is forced (in some ways) to put the puzzle pieces together and there is a lot unsaid, a lot between the lines. Some things aren’t, such as the history of infanticide in Iceland regarding children stricken with Down’s Syndrome, and how they were essentially treated as non-human. This is what makes the naturalist’s narrative so endearing, the idea that he was not one of these individuals, taking in the unfortunate Halfdís to live out her life with him, whereas the priest would not even allow any children with Down’s Syndrome into his church.
What’s not clear (to me) is why the priest set off on the fox hunt to begin with (perhaps financial reasons?) or perhaps here is where some Icelandic folklore comes in and could be lost on the average reader unfamiliar with the country’s myths and legends (Fridrik mentions a dream about a “blue vixen” in his letter to the reverend). It’s clear that the blue fox is representative of something involving the priest, possibly a transformative event in his life or being.
The scenes in which he pursues the fox are virtual poetry, allowing the reader to feel the air, snow, ice and cold; experience the Northern Lights as they appear in the sky. It is simultaneously beautiful and horrific. The beauty of life and the specter of death hovering just over one’s shoulder. This is no more apparent after the unforeseen event that occurs just as he completes the hunt. It is a dark, dense tale, with so much going on in just a few pages. A highly recommended read.