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Fragmented, dramatic novella beautifully written

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THIS beautifully written novella draws on Icelandic folktales, Romanticism and Ovid's Metamorphoses, among other movements and traditions.

The narrative is fragmented and made of three tales woven together in a sketch-like and unpredictable manner.

Its author, Sjón, is a celebrated Icelandic writer of both poetry and prose. He is also well known for his lyrics and performance-based poetics.

In 2005, he received the Nordic Council Literary Prize for The Blue Fox, which has been translated into 25 languages and is just now appearing in Canada.

It is being released at the same time as two other Sjón novels, The Mouth of the Whale, shortlisted for the 2012 Dublin IMPAC Prize, and a new one, The Whispering Muse.

The Blue Fox, set in late 19th-century Iceland, takes place in a remote valley during the snow-white month of January. There, on the edge of Europe, a spectacular drama unfolds that seems to involve some testing of humanity.

The central force of the story is nature herself, in all her terrible glory. In addition to this there are three memorable protagonists.

Rev. Baldur Skuggason is one. His talent as a fox hunter is far greater than his capacity for human empathy. In turn, he ferries the reader into the towering domain of nature, as well as the shattering shortcomings of the civilized society.

Abba, the young girl with Down syndrome, could also be viewed as one of The Blue Fox's centres of gravitas. A survivor of several horrific encounters with the (Christian) human race, she is an extraordinary character in every sense, and one who comes across -- just like Reverend Skuggason -- as a testimony to Sjón's perceptive force.

But what about Fri�rik B. Fri�riksson, the novella's third protagonist, and who appears to be Abba's rescuer? He is the young man who -- like so many 19th-century Icelandic farm boys -- sails to Copenhagen to study.

Instead of completing a degree in the subject of natural history, he finds himself on an offbeat track, namely the road to poetry. His vision on this road is intensified somewhat by his position as a medical assistant at a respectable pharmacy in Copenhagen (Iceland's capital at the time) and his regular attendance at the city's great lotus-eating parties.

"I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!" he states at one of these gleaming gatherings.

Pulled back to Iceland by the reality of his parents' death, he is already preparing to return to his soothing vision of the universe in Copenhagen when he stumbles upon Abba. As if shipwrecked on poetry's shore, Fri�rik cannot leave and slowly begins to unravel Abba's fable-like tale, wherein all the enigmatic fragments come together.

So, who's testing whom? That may be The Blue Fox's great question. This much is certain: The novella's lyrical quality has been praised by as diverse figures as the popular Icelandic diva Bjrk and the renowned English writer A.S. Byatt.

Thanks to Victoria Cribb's English translation of this nature-based and highly poetic spectacle, a certain blue fox will likely continue on its travels in the world of literature.

Writer and literary scholar Birna Bjarnadóttir is chairwoman of Icelandic Studies at the University of Manitoba.

The Blue Fox

By Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 115 pages, $15

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A1

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