From the Mouth of the Whale, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb, will not be to everyone’s tastes, but I found this to be a great read, filled with the visceral trappings of a time when Science and Magic were often thought to be the same thing. The year is 1635, and though Iceland is under the rule of Denmark it is a long way from anywhere. The main character, Jónas, has been exiled to a remote island off the coast of this remote island – just about as far as a man can be pushed without discovering a new continent. His crime is his intelligence (he is a self-taught healer), his heresy (a Catholic in a country where Protestantism has taken sway) and that he has earned the enmity of the local magistrate.
As he languishes on his island, he writes about his life, and through that we hear about the nature of the land. We learn of the deaths of three of his children, of the brutal murder of Basque fishermen, and of the harsh lives eked out on the edge of the world.
Jónas is then taken from his exile to Denmark, where opportunities suddenly flourish around him, but I don’t want to give too much away here. There are some beautiful touches to this novel – the search for dead ravens in the hope of retrieving a life-giving stone from their heads (as reported in the classical texts of Paracelsu), the unveiling of unicorn horns sold throughout Europe to be the teeth of narwhal, and the exorcism of a walking corpse.
Victoria Cribb has done a brilliant job of translating this book. It flows with lyrical poetry, but retains those harsh edges, like a sea wind blowing over marram grass.
I take it back, this should be to everyone’s tastes because it is beautiful and brilliant.