From the Mouth of the Whale (London: Telegram, 2011), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2012.
This is Sjón’s second novel to be published in English—the first one, The Blue Fox, won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2005.
The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is an annual award for the best contemporary fiction in translation published in the UK in 2011, and is unique in recognizing the importance of the translator in bridging the gap between languages and cultures. Sjón’s The Whispering Muse will be published by Telegram in June.
All languages have their own special alchemy, which can easily be lost in translation, but the magical work of translator Victoria Cribb inspired in me two thoughts: first, the belief that translations can stand on their own, and second, perhaps contrarily, the fervent wish that I could read what is probably even more beautiful in the original.
When I was in college, studying French and German, we sometimes had books in each of those languages that were printed with the original on the left-hand page, and English on the right, so that the translation, or transformation, could always be compared with the original. I am surprised that practice is not more common among works of literature in translation.
From the Mouth of the Whale is set in 17th-century Iceland. Although the rest of Europe was long past the middle ages, this was medieval Iceland, the pre-Enlightenment period when science was just beginning to challenge religious authority.
The protagonist and narrator, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, is a self-taught healer who is exiled for blasphemy and sorcery to desolate Gullbjörn’s Island off the coast of Iceland in the year 1635.
Although he is an independent thinker, Jónas is still steeped in the superstition and lore of his time, predominantly Catholicism and an embryonic science that sought to understand the world through cataloguing all its wonders.
Jónas’s story is told in a stream of consciousness style that allows the reader to ride along on all the fantastical journeys, tangents, highways and byways of his mind.
His meandering narrative tells of his career as a healer of women’s diseases; his struggle to conquer a gruesome ghost; his courtship and marriage; the deaths of his three children; his debates with his mentors, the Danish scholar Ole Worm and the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson (real historical figures who have been recruited into Jónas’s fiction); and his persecution for allegedly invoking the devil.
Jónas goes into exile with his wise and beloved wife, Sigga, who injects a note of salty irony into the narrative with her declaration, “That’s the sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”
Life and death are on display, including the birth (and death) of children, the sexual maladies, filth and excrement, corpses and rot and rigor mortis—everything that we avoid in our sanitized world.
Jónas (or Sjón) catalogues it all for us, and the kaleidoscopic intensity of Jónas’ mind is a marvel, a vision of the world like a canvas by Hieronymous Bosch.
Just as Jónas wonders how a dead man would know he is dead if he is still able to walk around, we become aware that it may sometimes be hard to tell the difference between our world and hell.
Sjón based Jónas on a real personage, Jón Guðmundsson the Learned, an Icelandic self-taught sage of the 17th century who was accused of calling on the devil to subdue a ghost, and exiled for sorcery.
Among Jón’s several important extant works is a treatise on Icelandic flora and fauna containing many pictures of whales—some realistic, others quite fantastic.
He also tells of the horrific killing of Basque whalers at the hands of some Icelandic villagers. Sjón says that he always knew he would go back to the fascinating figure of Jón the Learned at some point in his writing.
Whole sections of Sjón’s book flow without paragraph divisions, and with only ellipses for punctuation. Taxonomic entries occasionally interrupt the stream, providing distance in the midst of intense passages—snapping one back, so to speak, to the objective, real world of nature, and out of the phantasmagoric mind of Jónas.
But the descriptions of natural phenomena such as oleander, coral, moonwort, or the humpback whale are so shot through with superstition (moonwort can open locks as well as the cervix in childbirth, coral is effective against trolls and thunder), that they too reflect the mind and the time of Jónas. And, more importantly, the mind of Sjón.
The profusion of the meandering mind of Jónas is not meant to show madness, but the richness of the world and of one man’s imagination, especially when stimulated into high gear by the lack of anything else around it (a state that we in the modern world can scarcely imagine).
The line between Jónas Pálmason the Learned and Jón Guðmundsson the Learned is unclear, and in typical postmodern style, the characters in Sjón’s book overlap, and time and boundaries blur and fade with tantalizing surrealistic echoes.
In the Prelude, a resentful Lucifer presents Man with the gift of a vision of himself in all his repugnant multifariousness (which is the book itself).
The speckled sandpiper is slyly described by Jónas as a medium-sized fellow, with beady brown eyes, clad in a grey-brown coat, not unlike himself (or the author himself, perhaps).
And at the end, after Jónas is released from exile, Jón Guðmundsson the Learned steps into the book. Jón dreams of a man in a grey-speckled cap, with beady brown eyes surrounded by feathers, who says to him, “When you awaken you will have forgotten your name; for all you know, you may be called Jónas Pálmason.”
The theme of magically transmogrifying material is woven throughout the book in references to talismans, tupilaks, bezoars, kidney stones, and diacodi—objects in which simple organic material becomes concentrated, transformed and endowed with power.
Just as the bird becomes the man becomes the writer, the shapes and colors of old Icelandic texts are absorbed and remixed in this modern Icelandic text, and in translation those words are spun and respun into the golden threads of a new fabric. Translation is a form of alchemy in which the original wonder becomes a new kind of wonder.
From the Mouth of the Whale is available on Amazon.