The Whispering Muse


First Sentence:     I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.

Back of the book:

The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilization, has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea.

Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travellers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts’ quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

A master storyteller, Sjón seamlessly blends seafaring yarns of the ancient world with the manners of the modern age.

Quote from the book:

Had the perfidious termagants murdered them in their sleep and were they now planning to send us without captain or helmsman out on to the barren sea where our ship would founder like an insignificant louse in the blue beard of mighty Poseidon?

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From the Mouth of the Whale


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.

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