From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (trans. Victoria Cribb) Telegram, 279 pp. $14.95
Before being cast out from Heaven, a disgusted Lucifer, his world turned upside down by the creation of Man, gives God’s latest plaything a parting gift: a vision of himself. It is to this unsettling vision, and the subversion of it, that Icelandic writer Sjón’s seventh novel is devoted. The setting is seventeenth-century Iceland, a place marred by natural disasters and colonial neglect, where violent ghosts walk the earth, men are driven mad by the sight of a solar eclipse, and society is gripped with fear of the oft-overlapping terrors of Catholicism and witchcraft. From the Mouth of the Whale chronicles the exile of Jónas “the Learned” Pálmason, a self-taught scholar and healer and a convicted sorcerer, to a spit of an island within tantalizing sight of the Icelandic coast. Yet the scene of the novel is not so much Gullbjörn’s Island as the mind of Jónas himself, which is as densely populated with memories and knowledge as his island prison is desolate. As Jónas’s life and the more sinister causes of his exile are gradually revealed, Sjón’s at times intensely intimate first-person narrative poses questions about the nature of authorship and the pursuit and creation of knowledge, both of oneself and one’s world.
While several Icelandic writers of Sjón’s generation have grappled with the form of the historical novel, his works are set apart by their unique combination of historical realism and issues relevant to a contemporary audience, and by the placement of Icelandic society in a wider geographical and intellectual context. Readers of The Blue Fox, the first of Sjón’s novels to appear in English translation, will recognize a kinship between it and From the Mouth of the Whale; both of them center on individuals whose pursuit of knowledge has set them apart from the worlds they live in, thus bridging the gap between reader and historical setting and enabling Sjón to probe issues of contemporary concern in a distant context. But compared with The Blue Fox’s worldly andeminently modern protagonist, the erudite, Darjeeling tea-drinking naturalist Friðrik B. Friðjónsson, the medieval autodidact Jónas is rather an unconventional representative of scholarly progress for the modern reader. For one thing, he is a sincere believer in the supernatural power of kidney stones. Yet Jónas’s genuine thirst for knowledge is as infectious as his intellectual underpinnings are alien, and the very strangeness of his received wisdom enhances the familiarity of his thought process as he labors to make sense of his environment.
It is tempting to describe Jónas as straddling the divide between myth and modernity, but his world is presented without such sundering lines. The conviction underlying his mortal combat with a violent ghoul is the same as when he bursts into hysterical laughter on realizing that the King of Denmark’s precious unicorn horn is merely the tusk of a narwhal. And even the most otherworldly of Jónas’s experiences are grounded in an earthy physicality: before defeat, the ghoul drenches him in a “torrent of every imaginable kind of human filth”, and in a secret Catholic ceremony he witnesses as a child, the Virgin Mary’s likeness is excavated from the solid earth before his eyes.
Jónas’s expanded reality is populated with a supernatural diversity of phenomena, and a certain encyclopaedic preoccupation with the enumeration of things and their placement in a rightful order pervades the narrative. This practice recieves perhaps its most vigorous defense when Jónas proposes to his colleague Wizard-Láfi a method for exorcising the enthusiastically excreting ghost:
It seems to me that the best way to go about it would be … 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?
Sjón pays tribute to this encyclopaedism by punctuating Jónas’s train of thought with brief taxonomic descriptions of everything from conch shells to sea monsters, presented as if from Jónas’s own writings. Indeed, there is even a touch of nostalgia in the novel’s depiction of a world that has yet to be depopulated of a fair share of man’s imaginations by the scientific modernity toward which Jónas is so indelibly directed.
Nevertheless, Jónas’s rather orthodox thesis of the fixity of “God’s great mechanism” is constantly revised by the shapeshifting fluidity of his own perceptions, which reflect Sjón’s chosen epigraph from Novalis’s Novices of Sais: “Soon it seemed to him that the stars had become men, the men stars, the stones beasts, the clouds plants…” From a childhood fusion of photographic memory and vivid imagination is born Jónas’s early career in gynaecology: with his hand under the woman’s skirt, “I would close my eyes and summon up the book of medical art until it lay there open before my nose, the verso folio inside my left eyelid and the recto inside my right […] Thus I read together book and woman until both merged into one”.
But what begins as the instinctive action of a fertile mind grows into an articulation of creative resistance to looming madness. In open rebellion, Jónas takes on the father of Old Norse poetics, Snorri Sturluson himself, over the latter’s insistence on consistent metaphors, preferring to “let the sword turn into an adder and the adder a salmon and the salmon a birch twig and the birch twig a sword and the sword a tongue …” And even the exile himself, living outside human society, finds himself without a fixed address in the cosmic order he had once sought to document. In his island prison, he resists both solitude and soliloquy by addressing to a purple sandpiper, his sole companion, a description that applies to both himself and his feathered friend – medium-sized, portly fellows with beady eyes, clad in grey-brown coats. Yet the novel is at its most poignant when this shapeshifting survival tactic breaks down and reality claims the last word: a tear glistening on the cheek of Jónas’s deceased wife betrays all hope of her resurrection by proving to be his own.
In the Icelandic original, the novel is aptly titled Rökkurbýsnir, a coinage of Sjón’s own that could be rendered in English as An Abundance of Twilight or Marvels of Twilight. (Býsn carries the dual sense of something abundant or astounding.) But while Victoria Cribb’s choice of the title From the Mouth of the Whale for her translation foregrounds Sjón’s allusion to the Biblical castaway Jonah, the novel is firmly historically situated in ways apparent to an Icelandic reader. While the name Jónas Pálmason rings no historical bells, the supporting cast includes figures famous enough to decorate the national currency; Jónas’s patron, bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, adorns the present 1000-krónur banknote. And Jónas himself is indebted for his biography to Jón Guðmundsson the Learned, a historical figure known to posterity through his own writings, including an autobiography, naturalistic and medical texts, and exorcisms in verse, as well as an unvarnished account of a massacre of Basque whalers incited by a powerful magistrate. This event marks the start of Jón/Jónas’s trouble with the authorities, culminating in his island exile on charges of witchcraft, and it stands out as the novel’s heart of darkness, the moment of greatest resonance for Lucifer’s scornful introduction of mankind as steeped in its own filth.
In an inversion of the anonymity surrounding the Icelandic Sagas, Whale seems to be a work with too many known authors, rather than too few. Sjón’s writing is pervaded with a consciousness of the complicated authorial relations engendered by Jón the Learned’s (and hence Jónas’s) identity as a writer and an autobiographer. The encyclopedic fragments that stud the novel are thus apparently derived from Jón the Learned’s own writings, providing counterpoint in a historically authentic voice (though never explicitly acknowledged as such) to a narrative that seems at once to be fiction and a masquerade of it. An epilogue to the novel becomes almost a fictionalized bibliography, in which Sjón himself acknowledges the intimate relationship between writer, first-person narrator, and historical subject by staging an encounter between the historical Jón Guðmundsson and a man in “a grey-brown homespun coat, with a grey-speckled cap of the same material” with a bird-like, feathered face, evoking at once Sjón’s iconic mode of dress and Jónas the sandpiper of Gullbjörn’s Island. What transpires between the two of them might be read as the transformation of history into fiction, which according to Gabriel Garcia Márquez “was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale”. But here it is the creation of Jónas, through the phonetically resonant meeting of Jón and Sjón, that permits the telling of the tale and the encounter with the whale itself.
Sjón is acknowledgedly one of the most gifted stylists of his generation, and the Icelandic original evokes its historical-linguistic setting with a crackling intensity while remaining accessible to a modern reader. Although the tremendous richness and clarity of Sjón’s vocabulary is perhaps muted in the English rendering, this is more due to the language itself than any deficiency in Victoria Cribb’s translation, which elegantly captures the flow of Sjón’s writing and his deft and engaging use of syntactic variation to structure the narrative. The result is moving, eminently readable portrait of a man born before his time and the society that at once shapes and rejects him.
María Helga Guðmundsdóttir translates into English and Icelandic and divides her time between Reykjavík, Palo Alto, and New Delhi. Her published works include Ólöf the Eskimo Lady: Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America, by anthropologist Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir, and Twice in a Lifetime, a collection of short stories by Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson.
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