Wednesday, May 02, 2012
book review: From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon
This starts with a biblical come fairy story and the magical imagery of angels, demons and the supernatural stay throughout. Set in sometime in the 1600s in Iceland it follows the story of naturalist and inquisitive minded Jónas Pálmason the Learned who it turns out has ended up being exiled to an island for his knowledge.
As he recounts what happened to him and why he is on the island you encounter a mind alive to only interesting things and a man who has become a victim of politics and powerful Icelandic families looking to counter his particular line in poetry, naturalism and healing powers.
Interspersed throughout the text are entries from the notebooks that Jónas makes to track the things he sees around him with comments about animals and plants. His experiences - a particularly lively spot of ghost hunting - and his determination to share it land him on the wrong side of those with vested interests in keeping some things mysterious.
Those that trade in narwhal horns describing them as unicorn horns are just some of the people who would fear the self-taught naturalist.
Exiled on the rock having vivid dreams Jónas is not allowed to leave unless someone offers him passage on a boat. This finally happens and he is taken to Copenhagen where he meets a like-minded professor who strikes up a friendship with the old man and then does what he can to release him.
But he remains on the rock mourning a dead wife and those of his children that have died and the imagery becomes even more vivid. Passages where he swims to the bottom of the sea to chat with dead sailors are some of the most memorable and had cinematic descriptive qualities.
There is as much said as not said with this story which is describing a genuine world where knowledge could be a dangerous commodity. Strange self-made religious ceremonies and absolute beliefs in sea monsters and unicorns are views held by many. The problem for Jónas is that pricking those bubbles is a dangerous thing to do.
But you can't help but end up liking the old man. He allows you to join him in his strange world where the real, imaginary and mystical merge and it creates a story that is going to linger long in the memory.
Some readers might find the style a bit of an issue, particularly the styart, but this book is well worth persevering with and rewards those that do.