This is a novel I probably would not have read had it not made it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. There’s something about that single name that says both quirky and indulgent (Prince? Bidisha? (again, never actually read her due to my single name prejudice) Bjork?). Speaking of Bjork, Sjon also writes song lyrics and has worked with her in the past – they’re both Icelandic – another anti-recommendation in my view. At this point I’d love to say either: a) I was so right – it’s terrible; or b) I was so wrong – it’s amazing. Unfortunately, life is never that straightforward (just ask Jonas Palmason, the novel’s protagonist) and both convictions were predominant at different points in my reading – in fact, it’s a while since I read a book that left me so undecided.
The novel opens in Iceland in 1635 where we find Jonas exiled to a barren island with his wife for offending his country’s religious authorities:
“Jonas is a rogue, Jonas is a sly, disreputable fellow, Jonas is a braggart, Jonas is a liar, Jonas is a foolish dreamer…”
Jonas exists at a time when science and superstition coincide. His enquiring mind is demonstrated in the descriptions of plants and animals that litter the text, providing a little relief from his often intense monologue. From his childhood he is regarded as a healer and we learn that he searched in vain for the healing stone bezoar which he hoped to find in the skulls of ravens. It is his healing which eventually leads to his exile:
“But the leechbook would later land me in such desperate straits that I will never again be able to return to society but am fated instead to sit here talking nonsense to birds.”
Only in one brief section of the novel (where we are transferred temporarily to third person) does Jonas leave the island, being taken to Copenhagen where he meets with the learned professor Ole Worm. They bond when Jonas identifies a unicorn’s horn belonging to the Danish King as that of a narwhal – an instance of science beginning to challenge superstition:
“For the next three decades the brightest luminaries of Western philosophy wrangled over the existence of the fantastic horned beast…until the sceptics finally prevailed.”
However, this period of happiness soon ends when Jonas returns to Iceland to clear his name with a letter from the Danish King only to be exiled to his island once again.
One of my difficulties with the novel was that I couldn’t always divine Sjon’s intentions. He presents an intriguing picture of a man who is clearly both intelligent and curious trapped in a society that is mired in superstition and religion. However, Jonas himself is deeply religious, and not without his irrational beliefs – one of his proudest achievements is ridding a community of a ‘walking corpse’. This makes him all the more convincing, but harder to identify with. Few of the other characters make any impression – we are very much within Jonas’s mind for much of the novel. Even his monologues are addressed to fellow creatures rather than fellow humans.
What saves the novel for me are passages of astounding lyricism and imagination. The first few pages, which present to us the creation of man from the point of view of Lucifer, are stunning. (The bleak tone of this Prelude, where man is presented as cruel and savage, is a recurring theme, never more evident than when a group of Basque sailors, hunting whales of the coast of Iceland, are slaughtered without mercy.) Every time I felt Jonas’s meandering thoughts were becoming a little tedious, the next page would suddenly make me sit up and take note with a striking image or tale. For that reason, though I can’t whole-heartedly endorse From the Mouth of the Whale, I am sure that many readers will love it, and it is likely to make an impression on all.