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by Sjón ; translated by Victoria Cribb

Pub Date: May 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-28907-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A slim, suggestive, seafaring fable introduces the Icelandic author to America.

Something of an Icelandic Renaissance man (From the Mouth of the Whale, 2011, etc.), the novelist, poet and playwright has also collaborated with multimedia musical artist Björk (and earned an Oscar nomination in the process). The first American publication of this 2005 novel (which was honored as that year’s Best Icelandic Novel in his homeland) will likely attract a broader readership to an author revered by peers including David Mitchell and Junot Díaz. It leaps across centuries, blurs the line between myth and reality, and features a shape-shifting storyteller who was once a girl and then a gull before becoming a seaman. Yet, he isn’t the narrator, but the teller of one of the stories within the story, which is related by the fictional author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, an aged gentleman devoted to his “chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.” In 1949, his theories somehow lead to an invitation to voyage on a merchant ship, where he discovers to his consternation that the meals are rarely fish, but more often something like “horse sausage with mashed potatoes and white sauce,” and where each evening features stories from the aforementioned seaman, who finds inspiration in a sliver of wood (which later stirs the loins of the novel’s narrator and serves to link the storytelling impulse with the sexual urge). His tales concern Jason and the Argonauts, a mythical adventure that the storyteller apparently experienced firsthand. Amid theories about how man evolved from fish, dreams that make implausible stories seem even more far-fetched and the narrator’s realization of “the crew members’ tendency to behave as if everything I said was incomprehensible,” the narrative proceeds to a climax in which reality (fictional or otherwise) collapses in upon itself.

Metafictive, multilayered storytelling. But the book may leave many readers wondering what the point is.