Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.
One of the most obvious motifs in the novel is myth. Variations on standard mythology abound in the text. The novel begins with a retelling of the story of the fall of Lucifer. Later, it introduces a variation on the Garden of Eden story and the origin of Eve. In a sense, the entire story of Jonas could be viewed as a re-imagining of the story of Jonah. After all, the two characters, Jonas and Jonah have nearly the same name, they both have sailors try to throw them off boats in order to appease a storm, and, toward the end of their stories, they both get eaten by whales. Mythology is also contrasted with knowledge in the book, though the two subjects are not presented as opposites. It is clear that Jonas, a poet and man of myth, and his wife Sigridur, an amateur astronomer and woman of science, both express a similar basic desire for knowledge; indeed, knowledge and myth often boil down to the same thing, as they both seek to explain the way the world works. Jonas’ major scientific achievement, the classification of the flora and fauna of Iceland, is a curious mix of magical properties and concrete descriptions. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that it provokes reflection on the difference between mythology and knowledge, for in the period in history this novel portrays there does not seem to be any difference at all.
In addition to the little myths that pepper the book, there are longer myths that deal explicitly with the problem of depravity. For Lucifer, man’s creation is a depravity. For Adam, his shadow is a depravity. For Jonas, the behavior of the ruling powers in Iceland is a depravity. Depravity exists in the world of this book, and it’s a central problem – so what does one do about it? By dealing so centrally with this question, Sjón’s work is in much the same genre as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and The Book of Jonah. Like those other two important works, From the Mouth of the Whale doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers; its main virtue lies in challenging existing ones. Disengagement, one of the strategies Jonas pursues, doesn’t work for him, and he ends up wasting his life and ruining that of his wife. Poetry, myth, and reportage make up Jonas’ other strategy, and it seems to be much more promising. By recording the wrongs that he has seen the rulers of Iceland perpetuate, Jonas manages to keep some of his dignity and self-respect. The second strategy may not provide a perfect answer to the question of how to respond to the world’s depravity, since it surely doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Still, it seems to be the best answer that From the Mouth of the Whale proposes.
Even though the book would have had a neater finish if the author had managed to figure out a definitive solution to the problem of evil, it’s not exactly a fair to fault him for it. By provoking thought about big questions, and doing it in such an elegant and engaging manner, Sjón has written a book that is quite brilliant.
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