It is not easy to work out what From the Mouth of the Whale is about at first. It seems to be a book of 17th century Icelandic myths, based on the life of the fictional Jónas Pálmason, “a poet and self-taught healer” who has been exiled to a barren island for his heretical conduct. But who is the author, Sjon and what is he aiming at by creating these imaginary myths? What sort of book is it? What is its purpose?
From Wikipedia I discovered that “Sjon” is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, is a much acclaimed Icelandic poet and writer of children’s books, who wrote songs for Bjork, and a clue to the meaning of From the Mouth of the Whale is perhaps found in the book, A History of Icelandic Literature which refers to him thus:
the way in which Sjon employs international culture, myth, literature, and popular culture is unique, as is the breadth of his scope of reference. The narratives are enriched by light and humorous touches, which allow him to work pliably with what would otherwise seem obscure matters.
And that seems to be a pretty perfect assessment of From the Mouth of a Whale – light, humorous, a mix of culture, myth and literature. The book is certainly deftly written: The prose flows along in an easy, stylish way, describing the natural world with the eye of a poet/scientist and occasionally bringing you up short with some dark passages dealing with mayhem and death.
Jónas Pálmason seems to have been a natural healer. As a young boy he would explore the corpse of a brd, probing into the internal organs and learning similarities between bird and human – “man and bird, man with a bird’s heart, bird with a man’s brain, bird with a man’s heart, bird with bird brain . . . We are alike in most things . . . And why should we not be?”. Before long he had developed healing gifts and by reading the works of Paracelsus had “acquired so great a knowledge of the abdomen that there was scacely a female malady in existence that I did not have a nodding acquaintance with”.
But 17th century healing was not merely an analytical science. A knowledge of the world of the spirit was a vital part of understanding the causes of illness and deliverance from it. The borderline between Orthodox belief and magic was a thin one and there were those in the community skilled in seeking out those who trod close to witch-craft and sorcery. After experimenting with a “walking corpse” Jónas Pálmason went through a trial for running a school of necromancy and was banished to the barren island from where he writes his stories.
Perhaps the most alarming of the tales concerns the Basque whalers who revive the Icelanders interest in whaling, a skill they had lost over the years. The Basques set up a trading station and developed an amicable relationship with the local community, bringing a new prosperity to the little villages as whale meat was exchanged for farm produce and wool.
But inevitably perhaps, a bitter rivalry develops between the locals and the incomers, with accusations of theft and bad-dealing. One winter, when the Baques are departing for home, a terrible storm blows up in the harbour and the boats begin to break up as they collide with ice-flows. The Icelanders see their chance to rob the ships of their cargo and gather on the shore. They conduct a terrible massacre of the surviving Spaniards, an all too likely history taking into account the brutal times in which poor Jónas lives.
Despite the harshness of the era, Jónas is a poet and lover of the natural world –
Dazzling light: when the day is such a brilliant blue-white that the firmament is no longer a frame for the burning sun, rather the sun has become the kindling for a brilliant silver curtain that rises at the horizon and is drawn across the entire visible world, while the mountain ranges to the north, west and south shimmer as if in a strange mirage, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight, but never still; and the sea is a sheet of billowing velvet . . .
I know little of 17th century Iceland, but it all sounds very plausible. A land of mountains, icy seas and ancient stories. Jónas Pálmason is a believable character, reflecting on his troubled life from his remote island fastness and sustained by Christian imagery mingled with a belief in the mysterious powers of birds, plants and fishes.
As to my questions at the start of this review, What is it about? what is the purpose of it?, I think I saw it as entertainment – a quirky story of times past in a strange culture. It works on the level of “story-telling” and it would be a great book to read aloud. I suspect its in some sort of Icelandic tradition but I don’t know much about that. I enjoyed reading From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon’s stories had me in their grip for a couple of days and planted images in my mind which will I will probably recall when next I hear of the that northern land, more in the news these days for banking disasters than adventures with whales and walking corpses.