Friday, March 16, 2012
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon. (#IFFP)
In the prelude to this tale we follow a hunter on his way home from hunting some colossal and huge tusked boar, “the most savage brute the north has ever snorted from it’s icy nostrils”, although the traditional way is to leave the carcass where it fell, the hunter is carrying it home to demonstrate to his father, which of his sons labours the hardest. Home, we the reader, learn is called “Seventh Heaven” and all is not well, the gate guards are silent, there’s no sound of merrymaking from the banqueting hall and
“Conditions in the chamber were sickening; many of the angels were laughing with fear, others were weeping with hollow laughter, still others laughed and wept at once. The Ophanim had cast off their robes and knelt with brows pressed to the cold steps of the throne, letting fly with knotted scourges on their blazing shoulders”.
The hunter, we learn, is Lucifer and he is standing before his father who is holding something that is outlawed in heaven: there laying in his hand was man.
“ there you lay in his hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow.Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over on to your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes – mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was: ‘I’.
This was Lucifer's introduction to man and his father wants him to join his brothers and bow before him. He refuses to bow before what he sees as his fathers pet and is cast out of heaven, but leaves Man a parting gift – a vision of himself.
In the main section of the book, we are in 17th-century Iceland, and our hero is Jónas Pálmason the Learned, a self-taught naturalist, poet and healer, who has been sentenced to a strange form of exile, stranded on an island with the threat of death on any who helps him leave. As the book unfolds we learn of his life, of how as a youth, who having learnt from the writings of a Dr Bombastus (Paracelsus), was acquainted with and knew the prescription for most female maladies. He bartered that knowledge for Ravens heads, which according to Bombastus, contains a special stone that can cure most blood illnesses, called a bezoar.
In a country that had violently became Lutheran after the reformation, Jonas with his mix of book learning & pagan lore, falls foul of the authorities and is charged with sorcery and necromancy, although these charges appear to be have been the most convenient ones to silence him with, as the main problem is that he threatens the status quo with his ideology.
Whilst researching for this book, I learnt that it is based in part on the autobiographical writings of Jon Gudmundsson, also known as “the Learned”, he was a farmers son from the Strandir region (Northwest Iceland). At twenty years of age he was an excellent scribe and seems to have been well known for paintings and carvings, although nothing has survived to the present. Today he is known for his autobiographical writing, including works mentioning the arrival of Spanish (Basque) whalers and the killing of a group of whalers by the Icelanders*.
I also learned that in 1617 King Christian IV of Denmark decreed that all sorcery, whether white or black, was evil and illegal. He also decreed that it was to be harshly suppressed throughout his domain. In 1630 this had reached Iceland and was read out in the Althing** in Icelandic translation and became law. It was even debated whether it was a suitable or legitimate subject for scientific study. In 1627 a priest named Gudmundur Einarsson, wrote a treatise called “Hugras” denouncing Jon Gudmundsson as an emissary of the devil, sent to fool the people by habituating them to lesser forms of sorcery and he also castigates The Sheriffs of Iceland (syslummen) for neglecting the 1617 decree. In 1637 Gudmundsson was sentenced in the Icelandic parliament to permanent exile for practising white magic & misuse of God’s name, but King Christian IV, stepped in and lightened the sentence, permitting him to reside in eastern Iceland.
*Sjon seems to have taken these dry historical facts mixed them up with the natural lore of his country, then spun the lot through some giant kaleidoscope, not once but many times, that he is a poet is also beyond dispute the writing is wonderful,
“I first glimpsed my future wife by the will o' the wisp light of the eclipse. At the very moment when the sun was halved, Sigrídur captured my gaze with her eyes - eyes that were a haven of peace amidst the storm of madness that raged on the farm.”
Although Victoria Cribb, also deserves high praise for her translation from Icelandic, with her use of words like “Helpmeet” & “Braggart” making the book appear grounded in an older form of English, allowing me to get a taste of the period, yet in my native tongue. I have discussed before in another post, about when you meet someone for the first time and there is a certain formality to it, like a polite introduction, followed by a period of time where you size each other up, are you going to like this person, do you have anything in common etc. Then there are those that cut straight through that process, beyond the initial introduction, you’re already smiling/laughing at some shared humour, as though you’ve known each for an eternity. Jonas Sandpiper is such an individual and although he may be a “rogue, sly, a disreputable fellow, a liar and a foolish dreamer” …
I could quite happily sit in a bar somewhere with a glass of some fermented herb/ whale blubber etc, listening to his inane or impassioned warbling all night long.
This is a strange and wonderful book, it's also harsh, weird, comic and magical, we have walking corpses (ghosts ?) kicking butt, and yet it has horror, cowardice & cruelty, as Jonas says himself
"When did a skilled craftsman first fiddle with a nail between his fingers, then happen to glance at the hammer that hung heavily at his side, and see not the carpentry job in front of him, but his brother nailed to a cross?".
Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. Poet, novelist and playwright, he has received numerous literary awards, including the Nordic Council's Literature Prize for The Blue Fox, which was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009.
He was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Brit Award for the music, which he collaborated on with Bjork, for Dancer In The Dark.
From The Mouth of the Whale is his second novel to be published by Telegram. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages.
Publishing Perspectives (Sjon)
Words Without Borders (Sjon)
*Slaying of Basque Whalers?
**Althing is the national parliament (literally, "(the) all-thing", or general assembly) of Iceland. It is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world still extant.