Jónas Pálmason the Learned was one of those people whose life is forever turning with the wheel of fortune. He had no sooner reached a safe haven than he was sent straight back out on to the stormy sea, and always in a leakier vessel than the one in which he had arrived.
From the Mouth of the Whale opens with a strange prologue. Lucifer tells us the story of his first encounter with man and the moment that led to his expulsion from Heaven. It is not particularly flattering.
Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow. Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over on to your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes – mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was: ‘I’.
See what I mean? And it actually gets worse from there. In case there was ever a doubt, Lucifer is not a fan. But what this passage does is establish that this story is set on the Northern part of the globe. Lucifer has just come back from hunting the bull elk and the shag-haired trout and a monstrous tusked boar. The manner in which he tells his story is reminiscent of Inuit or Norse folklore.
The remainder of the novel (with a few exceptions) is narrated by Jónas Pálmason, called Jónas the Learned. He is the equal of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Mark Helprin’s Oscar Progresso from Memoir from Antproof Case, who are (to my mind) two of the most entertaining storytellers in fiction. By turns sardonic and regretful, paranoid and persecuted – Jónas is beset by a torrent of memories. These he relays as quickly as possible, one event transitioning into another. Memories of his past, conversations he would have had with his children, scraps of knowledge pulled from books – all come out in an almost incessant stream of consciousness.
The year is 1635, just two years after Galileo Galilei went before the Spanish Inquisition and was forced to recant that the earth orbited the sun. Our Jónas is a self-taught healer, a runic scholar, a poet, an artist, an observer of the natural world, and a collector of pagan lore. As such, he’s been accused of sorcery by his enemies (much like mid-wives were accused of being witches). Forced to live as an outlaw, the courts decree that no one may give aid to him or his family. Yet, he cannot leave Iceland unless someone provides passage. Caught in this Catch-22, Jónas helplessly watches as his family is made to suffer and all but one of his children die. Despite all that he endures, he cannot stifle his desire for knowledge.
Sjón has convincingly and amusingly rendered the illogicality of a man of science before science existed. Jónas scoffs at the existence of unicorns, but tells us about the exorcism which made him famous.
‘It seems to me that the best way to go about it would be by the sort of exorcism that good priests used to perform in papist times, that is, to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent. In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place. For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands? For that matter, how is he to know that he is not one of the elves? Both live outside human society? How is he to know that he is not a piece of driftwood? The flesh of both is equally rotten and stinking. Or a stray dog? Both are shooed away. Or merely a rock that rolls down the mountainside, causing men to dodge?’
Jónas goes on to conclude that he should berate the ghoul in verse.
Seventeenth Century Iceland appears to have been both cold and brutal. But Sjón immerses his readers in the mind of his hero, which is a foreign and colorful place. The plot of From the Mouth of the Whale closely resembles the Old Testament’s Book of Jonah, but our Jónas is an old man with a tendency to ramble. Despite the hardships, it’s a surprisingly funny tale. Sjón has created a character so quirky, so strange and irreverent that the reader can’t help but be amused. The journey this story takes us on has all the makings of an epic adventure. Just not in the traditional sense.
Publisher: Telegram, London (2011)*
ISBN: 978 1 84659 083 2
*If we can trust Amazon, it looks as if this book will be available in the U.S. January of 2012.