John Self’s fascinating review of From the Mouth of the Whale intrigued me when I read it, and had it in the back of my mind that I should find this book at some stage. And then, by chance, I found it browsing at a rather wonderful independent Canberra bookstore the other day. So, of course, I had to buy it – I mean, who doesn’t love slightly obscure modern Icelandic fiction?
Iceland of 1635 is very different to that of today. Religion – Christianity in particular – rules the world, and any word spoken against the King, or God, will not be looked upon kindly. Jónas Pálmason, though, has done just that, and has been exiled to an island in the ocean. As he lives out his last days, he relieves how he came to find himself on a barren rock – the people he met, the places he went, and the mistakes he made.
For a modern atheist, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Christianity rules the world, and where daring to say you don’t believe is a corporal offence. But this is the world Sjón gives us. Religion pervades every part of life here, though not perhaps in the most recognisable form. This is a time where Christianity is still violent and naturalistic, where dead bodies can be taken over by souls who have not yet crossed over to heaven come back to haunt. Jónas is a believer, but he is not an idiot, and is deeply interested in the natural sciences, such as they are the 17th century. He knows that unicorns probably don’t exist, even though people try to palm off narwhal horns as unicorn horns to turn a profit.
It gets to the point of almost being magical realism, at times. Jónas has conversations throughout the novel with several birds, a zombie, and a skeleton stuck on the sea bed. Whether this is thorugh divine intervention, or simply a symptom of the wild world in which he lives, we can never be sure. In fact, Jónas’ own sanity is probably questionable – he is an old man living on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, with no one to talk to save for the occasional errant sandpiper. His unreliability, though, is a gift – seeing the world through his eyes is rather special.
There’s a beautiful passage about a third of the way through the novel where Sjón retells the Genesis myth in all its Icelandic, naturalistic beauty. And that’s one of the main selling points of the novel – Sjón gives us an Iceland that is starkly beautiful, particularly in comparison to the Denmark he shows. We get almost no glimpses of Icelandic cities – instead, we see the country as wild frontierland, where people are a little bit mad, and where the harsh realities of a world completely at the mercy of the elements dictates the way people live their lives.
It’s refreshing, and that the same time deeply depressing, to know that the people of the 17th century are just as petty and cruel as those of the 21st. There is a small section in the middle of the novel where Sjón stops dazzling us with beautiful imagery and metaphoric language, and lays out some actual plot. I don’t mean this to sound dismissive, because both parts work perfectly well, but the plot bit made the whole novel hang together a lot more. It’s a brief description of a trip Jónas takes to Denmark (saying anything else would be something of a spoiler), where he tries to have his name cleared, so he can return to Iceland without fear of being chased with pitchforks by an angry mob. He meets a good friend here, eager for help with ancient Icelandic runes, and the two intellects hit it off straight away. More importantly, though, Jónas receives some good news, that is ultimately useless. Because people are crap.
From the Mouth of the Whale is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It is a novel that conjures up a time of history that is savage, brutal, and harsh, though there are clearly people here with which we modern folk can connect. This is a book that demands rereading – the first parts are mysterious and confusing, and will probably make more sense a second time round. Nevertheless, I’m willing, and indeed, looking forward, to doing do.