“All day long the vixen ran up the hill and down dale, the man following hard on her heels. She was his letter of commission, setting him a task to perform in the material world.” (26)
Ever since my trip to Iceland last January I have been wanting to read some Icelandic literature. By its mere size, at a slim 115 pages, Sjón’s The Blue Fox appeared as good a place as any to dip my feet in the Icelandic chill. Though this is a short novella, it offers much to consider and stands alone as a literary accomplishment worth reading – and for those with short attention spans, this can easily be digested in a single day’s reading.
This seemingly straightforward story takes place in three parts spanning the dates January 18-17, 1883 with a short prologue occurring as a written letter dates March 23, 1883, with the second part actually occurring two days prior to the introductory part. The storytelling weaves back through time with a mysterious and enchanting poetic lyricism that is both compelling and engaging with a dark and melancholic quality that captivates the reader.
In the first part an unnamed, lone hunter is tracking down a fox for her pelt in the deepest and darkest part of winter. The writing here transitions from the hunter and the fox’s perspective as though it were an ode to nature’s claim over the both of them. For example, consider this brief passage that describes the passing of daylight:
“In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colors they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and their in their wild caperings. This spectacle is at its brightest shortly after sunset. Then the curtain fall; night takes over.” (28)
Only at the end of the first part part does the narrator reveal the identity of the hunter and his name is ignited upon the page with the burst of his rifle’s fire. In the second part of the book, the narrative takes a chronological step backwards and moves away from the poetic voice into a descriptive and conversational tone. It is here that the reader learns of the rural lifestyle of the hearty Icelandic people. There is the discovery of a marooned ship and its life-giving cargo of fish oil as well as the surprising castaway of a battered woman, likely used as a slave-whore by the lost sailors. The woman is an island unto herself due to her neglect and apparent mental deficiency, but her simplicity gives joy to a naturalist who later marries her:
“The figure in the corner became aware of him. She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world.” (58)
Although the chronology of the second part claims to have taken part immediately prior to the hunter chasing fox, with the appearance of the girl who is a later revealed to be a dead woman, as well as a changeover from one town priest to another, it isn’t quite clear where in time the story exists. The lyric form apparently hides itself within the conversational narrative in order to transcend time and reveal the motivations of rural Icelandic peoples. It is here that the reader learns of harsh choices that prompt infanticide of those who are unfit to survive in the Icelandic climate and the text describes the assumed culture practices with harsh and shocking exactitude:
“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.” (64)
Yet, the chronological narrative is an aside meant to add to the melancholic mystery of what is essentially a moral fable about man’s relationship to nature. The third part of the story returns the reader to the poetic dance between the hunter and the fox as the reader becomes witness to the hunter’s tragic subjection of nature’s vengeance against his actions. Within this lyric dance there are strange moments of magical hallucinatory events, as well as a gruesome description of the skinning of the fox pelt that may shock an unforgiving reader, but the narrative drives the necessity of these moments that verge on the edge of sanity and reality.
Without revealing the surprises buried within the book, I’ll acknowledge that it was jarring and captivating read. Having visited Iceland myself, the natural and poetic language reignited my admiration for that distant, beautiful, and harsh land.