I had a real treat this week with a tiny novel that has been going around the Writers’ Group. It is passed from hand to hand with reverence and a twinkle in the eye. Well not by everyone. One member gave up and didn’t finish it. Yet another lesson in the subjectivity of the reader.
‘The Blue Fox’ (2004) is by the Icelandic author Sjón. (One name like Björk and Elvis). It is available in English through a publisher called Telegram which seems appropriate as it is very small – each idea and sentence and image telegrammatic.
This brought up an open question about small books: what makes a novel? How big can it go, how short before it becomes a novella or a short story? The definition was pushed to some kind of limit a couple of years ago when Will Eaves’s ‘The Absent Therapist’ (2014) was published. He raided his notebooks and collected a series of vignettes. Every writer everywhere kicked themselves and looked regretfully at their shelf of filled notebooks. Is ‘The Absent Therapist’ a novel though? It is sublime so who cares.
So too, ‘The Blue Fox.’ I have no problem catagorising it as one of Crosse’s necessary books.
Set in 1883, the book unfolds in several parts. Reverend Baldur Skuggason hunts a vixen – the blue fox of the title. Then comes the story of Fredrik and Abba, then we are back to the reverend and the repercussions of Skuggason’s rifle shot (my goodness Dorothy, we’re not in Iceland anymore!). And a last letter brings the book to its conclusion.
Each section is surprisingly different. My sentimental soul hugged the story of Fredrik and Abba to my chest (yes, I know, not an image worthy of Sjón). Make no mistake, the sentimentality is with me not the prose. Fredrik goes back to the rural area of his upbringing to sort out his parents’ estate after their deaths. He plans to sell up, pay off debts, and ‘hang the cat.’
He meets Abba and his plans change. Abba is one of the ‘Asiatic innocents who owned nothing but the breath in her lungs’ (p. 64). In other words, she has Down Syndrome.
I am not sure fiction has to be educational, but I did take away from the pages some new knowledge about nineteenth century theories behind this quirk of genetics.
As Sjón recounts, it looked like white women were having ‘defective children of Asiatic stock.’ Dr John Langdon Haydon Down theorised the babies were premature and born at an early developmental stage of the foetus, which are listed as ‘fish-lizard-bird-dog-ape-Negro-yellow man-Indian-white man’ (p. 62). Hence the defunct and cringeworthy word we used (to our retrospective shame) for people supposedly born in the seventh ‘yellow man’ stage: Mongoloid.
I found this theory so absurd, so obviously in the realms of fiction, I went to the great god of all knowledge, Google, to look it up. It fits into the discredited (what a surprise!) Recapitulation theory.
The other sections of ‘The Blue Fox’ are not huggably beautiful, though the fox of the title is described beautifully. The eyes. The stillness. And she is real: as in the description of her as she ‘bored her muzzle to the roots of her fur, gnawing at herself as if she were delousing for Doomsday’ (p. 96). Anyone who has ever owned a cat will recognise this. My cat has, since I read the passage, had his first of a series of flea treatments…
Reverend Baldur Skuggason, in addition to his fox hunting, arrives in the parish and gets everyone worshipping properly. Anyone rowdy in church is taken out the back and thrashed. And Abba, who loves singing, is stopped from coming to the service. Skuggason takes his shot at the blue fox and I will not spoil the many surprises of the consequences.
I am sure the meaning of all the intertwined events are much debated, as they should be, but perhaps it is to show us the nature of fate and that ‘the equality of all living beings are ensured in death’ (p. 73). Something to think about.
Interestingly, and sadly, when I looked for images of blue foxes, the vast majority had them dead and skinned and worn on a beautiful woman’s back. So thank you to Øyvind Holmstad for the image that depicts rather than defiles the blue fox.