From the Mouth of the Whale
A novel, by Sjón
Telegram Books, London, 2011
Translated by Victoria Cribb
This story of Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught seventeen-century Icelandic healer, naturalist and heretic (loosely based on the real Jon Gudmundsson the Learned), is a wild hallucination from start to finish. Sjón’s vivid imagery and constant shifting of tone makes it a somewhat difficult read, but I found it to be rewarding enough to stick with to the end. Jónas is a misfit in a world of petty and small minded men: he is persecuted for years, banished to a small island, is humiliated and threatened. His tale captures the feel of 17th century Iceland. The inspiration of the natural world and Jónas’ sometimes mystical interpretation of it is a constant theme. He perseveres even as his children and wife are cruelly taken from him. His merciless condemnation of those who have power over him could be taken as Sjon's indictment of the modern day financial “Vikings” who nearly destroyed the Icelandic economy, but that might just be me reading too much into it. There are numerous incidents based on Icelandic history (including the slaughter of Basque whalers) while other events occur which are fantastic, to say the least (see title.)
I can’t think of another contemporary writer who is working in these areas. Sjón is a modern, but this writing is presented in an almost archaic style. Victoria Cribb’s translation realizes this beautifully—I think she works better in this mode than she does in modern crime fiction. If you are looking for a challenge, this might be just the book for you. It is is more than a bit “Icelandic,” the wider the knowledge of Iceland’s history you have, the more you'll appreciate this unique book.