From the Mouth of the Whale

Written by Sjón Victoria Cribb (trans.)
Review by Jeanne Mackin

Both learned man and sometime-fool, Jonas Palmason, the narrator of Sjon’s Icelandic novel, has a lyrical, visionary voice that brings to life 17th-century Iceland. The prose style has more to do with the ancient sagas than contemporary storytelling, using long block paragraphs rather than distinctive scenes, and little dialogue. The story that is told of one man’s struggle against ignorance and superstition brings to vivid reality what life was like under monarchy and religious strictness, when a very few ruled the many, when poverty and hardship rendered sentiment and empathy as rare as pearls. As such, this reader saw this novel as a kind of cautionary tale. History does repeat itself, after all. Mostly, though, the novel is a brief and intense look at medieval life in all its lack of glory. Jonas Palmason, a self-taught poet and healer, is punished for daring to write a book, a natural history. In a culture ruled by lack of knowledge, his search for it is deemed heretical. Exiled onto a barren island with his long-suffering wife, Jonas recalls a life full of brief moments of wonder blazing through darkness. Sjon, an award-winning Icelandic author, has written a strange and memorable novel using the story of Jonah and the whale as a metaphor for the acquiring of knowledge.