“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”
~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón
Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.
That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.
Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.
The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.
The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.
It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.
Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.
-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko