March 13, 2012 by markstani
From the raw, volcanic landscape of early seventeenth century Iceland, with ancient myths of mermen and unicorns tumbling from its fissures; a land of endless nights, burning snow and whales the size of mountains; Sjon has crafted an extraordinary novel, which has been deservedly longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
From The Mouth Of The Whale (pub. Saqi/Telegram) conjures a precipitous landscape upon which early Lutheranism has taken a violent hold, making the population paranoid of old pagan rituals such as those supposedly employed by Jonas Palmason the Learned, an insatiable scholar who combines medicinal practices with his vast knowledge of the properties of his nation’s plants and animals: coral, for example, of which it has been proved that ‘if [it] is heated until it glows, then quenched in warm milk, and afterwards drunk by the man who has no appetite or a gripe in the guts, he will be cured. Some claim that coral must be what the ancients referred to as the work of mermen or dwarfs.’
Convicted of heresy, Jonas is banished to spend the rest of his life in exile on a rocky islet, from where he reveals his shocking, yet curiously life-affirming story.
Jonas recalls his famous exorcism of a walking corpse at Snjafjoll, the deaths of his children and, in the book’s most disturbing and unforgettable passage, the massacre of a band of Basque whalers. In doing so he poses crucial contemporary questions about the corrupting power of religion, and the inherent fraility of humanity.
In another memorable scene, Jonas is shipped to Denmark in order to plead for his freedom: there, he meets the doctor and natural philosopher Ole Worm, with whom he takes great delight in exposing some of the very myths which he has been punished for allegedly perpetrating.
Upon being presented with a specimen believed by great-and-good Danes to be a unicorn’s horn, Jonas ‘began to laugh and could not stop. His short legs buckled under his quaking body and he dropped to the floor, where he lay hooting as if he were in tears.’ The specimen is, in fact, nothing more than a narwhal tusk.
The Icelanders had first encountered these horrid beasts when they founded a colony on Greenland around the year 1000 Anno Domini and soon began to export the tusks, labelling them as ‘unicorn horns’ according to the latest fashion. The Greenlanders and their middlemen in west Iceland grew fat on the profits of this secret commerce, which ensured the Greenlandic colony an advantageous balance of trade with foreign lands as well as laying the foundation for the wealth of the most powerful families in Iceland.
Jonas soon finds himself billeted back on his islet: his wife now dead, he is condemned to see out the rest of his days alone. It is no surprise to find him cynical about human nature – ‘the dead generally possess more fortitude than the living, as is clear by the way they lie still in their graves’.
The beauty of this book lies in the author’s splendid excavation of Icelandic history and legend; in his evocation of his nation’s untamed natural wonders; in his damning indictment of religious doctrine; in his heady blend of hallucination and tumultuous picaresque. It is a book of stunning originality and profound oddity, such that its flawless translation from its original Icelandic is no mean feat: for that achievement, Victoria Cribb deserves special mention and enormous praise.
This is a book worthy of winning any prize. Its judges can rest assured that they would never pick another winner quite like it.
I should add that if you like this, you will in all likelihood also like Heoin Bru’s The Old Man And His Sons, set in the Faroe Islands in the 1930s, and also published by the marvellous Saqi/Telegram.