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.