From the Mouth of the Whale

Sjón

First Sentence:  I was on my way home from the hunt.

From the Mouth of the Whale is a great, baffling, enjoyable book. It is mainly concerned with Jónas Pálmason who has been exiled from his native Iceland for blasphemy. The year is 1635 and Jónas  is secluded on a small island off the coast, with only his thoughts and memories for company. He is ‘a lighthouse at the edge of the world’. It is a great book because Sjón is a poet, a wonderful writer who has a unique way with words. The book instantly drags you in. The power to be found in this book is in the language, and how it transports you to another place entirely. When Jónas is talking to the sandpiper in the opening scene you can’t help but be captivated. Jónas himself can relate to this feathered creature and even sees himself mirrored in the bird’s behavior. They are both writers of sorts:

Yes, strutting sandpiper, your footprints in the sandy beach are your handwriting; thus you write your ephemeral tales and reports of what you have seen on your short-winged travels…

Just as Jónas himself has written, and travelled. It is a baffling book because  it is set in a surreal environment and Jónas as a narrator is something of a rambling raconteur. It is hard to differentiate fact from imaginings, actual events from fabricated memories. Everything that follows the opening scene with the sandpiper maintains a lyric quality and Jónas’ story is reflected in the harsh, unforgiving Icelandic landscape. It is a novel to be savoured page by page. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Any book with a passage like this is worthy of your time:

Yes, there you have it, whether you are high-born or lowly, a stout figure or a whip-thin emaciated wretch, when your time on Earth is over you will be nothing but a sack of skin, emptied of its contents: the soul will have departed and without it you will be nothing but a leather bag of bones.

* * * *

Last Sentence:   The great fish slams its jaws shut, gives a splash of its tail and disappears once more into the deep.

Last Sentence explained:   This is a tale full of superstition, crude science and poverty. Unicorn horns are sold on the black market and skulls are routinely searched for a magic stone that can cure all illness (a bezoar). In this crazy world it is hardly surprising that the book sometimes verges on the surreal. The opening prelude seems to be set in Hell, and midway through there is a scene where a ship reaches Jónas’ island with all the creatures of the sky carrying it from above while all the creatures of the sea are supporting it from below. No surprise then when the ending is somewhat ambiguous. The last we actually see of Jónas, he is dancing on his rock, at one with nature and at peace with the world. He has suffered in his life, seeing three of his children and his wife die, but at this time he is content. We are told this is where we must leave him. We will not see when his exile is revoked, when he fathers another son and when he dies in 1658. We will not see this and yet we are told it will happen. This scene on the cliff side is to be the final one. But then we get the real final scene when Jónas comes to his senses, presumably after his dance. The scene where Jónas has been swallowed by a whale. He is inside the whale’s stomach but is soon brought to shore where he is reunited with some old friends and family. So yeah, at times surreal but always enjoyable.

Random quote from the book:

“He recited the first verses, which he had knocked together with some skill, and I slipped into the metre – slipped into it like a tongue into the eye socket of a well-boiled sheep’s head.”


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