Tuesday 21 June 2011

'That's the sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place!'

From The Mouth Of The Whale
by Sjón
translated by Victoria Cribb

Sjón's first book, The Blue Fox (also published by Telegram), was something I could only have come to read from taking an interest in other book blogs (thank you Scott Pack over at Me And My Big Mouth) and one of those reading experiences of an entirely singular nature that bolsters your belief in the ability to be surprised by writing occasionally. As such, it is the kind of book I recommend to people when they say that they're after something 'a bit different.' A perfectly constructed fable set in 19th century Iceland it followed the Rev. Baldur Skuggason as he hunted the rare vixen of the title and also told the story of Abba, a woman with Down's Syndrome as she is buried by the naturalist who had been her guardian. The two narratives come together neatly at the end and it was the extraordinary connections between man and environment throughout that made it such a magical read. The latest of his works to be translated into English takes us even further back into Iceland's history beginning (after a prologue) at the autumn equinox of 1635. We meet Jónas Pálmason, poet, exorcist, naturalist, living in exile on a barren island with his stoical wife Sigga. Those connections between man and animal so richly explored in The Blue Fox are there again immediately as Jónas observes a bird with which he bears direct comparison.

Clad in a grey-brown coat of narrow cut, with a faint purple sheen in the twilight; bright stockings, a speckled undershirt . . . . Importunate with his own kind, garrulous with others . . . . So might one describe the purple sandpiper and so men describe me

Jónas' exile has come about at the hands of the local sheriff, purportedly for sorcery, blasphemy and his naturalist writings which pepper this almost stream-of-conciousness account. His wife chose to be rowed out to join him and it is her frequent utterance that gives this post its title, hollered when Jónas lifts off on another flight of fancy. And he has plenty of tales with which to regale us, all steeped in the atmosphere of darkness, ignorance, fantasy, suspicion, cruelty, poverty and survival that pervades 17th century Iceland and the landscape of the novel. Jónas first achieved fame of sorts after his spectacular exorcism of a troublesome ghost on the remote Snjafjoll coast. The walking corpse of a parson's son who had been cruelly treated before falling over a cliff whilst trying to prove himself the stronger man in the battle for a woman's affection is a gruesome sight.

White skin, with a fist-sized bruise from the temple to the right-hand corner of its mouth, mouldering cheeks, hair straggling claw-like over its forehead above rolling, red, bestial eyes. The evil youth opened wide his skate's jaw, inside which all the teeth were broken at the root or smashed in from the fall that had sent him to his death on the slab of rock.

In the end it takes the skills of both Jónas and his socerer friend Láfi to defeat him, using poetry to enforce the natural order so that the body can return to the earth and the soul to heaven. But far from bringing him the fame and fortune he sought it is this event that sets him on the collision course with the authorities. Conflict was always bound to arise at some point with such an extraordinary character, a man who as a child would lay his hands on the bellies of the local women to heal their ailments, whilst they in return would bring him the heads of ravens so that he could continue his search for the bezoar, a stone supposed to aid in healing and in the search for the philosopher's stone (those of you who've read Harry Potter knew that already though, didn't you!). A man who grew up in a farming community still at the mercy of omens and portents and who married a girl who used her own intelligence to work out the mysteries of both lunar and solar eclipses. Jónas is a fascinating character, even if the reader may struggle at times to keep up with his 'ramblings.' I'll take no credit whatsoever for drawing your attention to the teachings of Paracelsus that inform the novel, as highlighted by Carolyne Larrington in her superb review from the TLS. In fact as she says it is 'Paracelsian beliefs about the life within all natural things and the interconnectedness of microcosm and macrocosm' that give the novel its structure.

Sjón works wonders in combining moments of magic into what is actually a fairly grim tale. In the central section, titled 'The Kidney-Stone' Jónas is visited and taken from his exile by a sailor who seems to be from the future. Jónas is granted a stunning vision of all living creatures, an insight into the natural order that will assist him when he arrives in Copenhagen to work alongside the scholar Ole Worm. His knowledge of Icelandic nature allows him to expose the true source of the unicorn horns that enjoy a healthy trade in Denmark. He isn't naturally a debunker of myths however, praising for example those that have ascribed all sorts of fantastical tales to his homeland for 'in some strange way they come close to the stories that we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.' Bolstered by the elevation that comes from his involvement with Ole Worm he is cleared by the Danish court of the charges that had forced him into exile and returns to Iceland with the hope of seeing that exile quashed; a hope that will be cruelly denied and compounded by the increased harshness of the loneliness he returns to. Any success is buried by the misfortune that follows it and yet somehow Sjón manages to keep us fascinated by the thoughts of this 'stay-at-home hero, edited out of my own story, too thoroughly buried and forgotten to be called on to perform unexpected feats of courage in a far-off kingdom.'

Jónas hasn't just lost his liberty but three of his four children too so it is perhaps no wonder that he has thought so much about mortality. Himself a keen carver he wonders at what stage man looked at the knife in his hand and saw not a tool to create or provide but a weapon to 'find an easy path to the jugular vein of one's fellow man.' And yet in a trademark and beautiful volte-face near the novel's close, in a passage that explains in a way the satisfaction that comes from reading Sjón's challenging and wayward novel, Jónas imagines a conversation between himself and his long-deceased daughter Berglind. Having asked her to fetch him a piece of wood to carve he imagines how he would respond if she asked in return what kind of wood he wanted.

The knottier the branch, the more twisted and misshapen, the more bent people call it, the harder it is to find it a place among the smooth planks, the more people agree that it should be thrown on the fire, the more useless it is, the more unsuitable for anything except letting one's imagination run riot, the more I covet it, the more I yearn to weigh it in my hand, the more I long to let my whetting knife be guided by its knots and veins...Yes, bring that piece to me.

Yet again Sjón has provided me with a rich, rewarding and quite frankly bonkers reading experience that is as easy to recommend as it is hard to summarise. Telegram and translator Victoria Cribb deserve huge praise for the two books they have published so far, one can only hope that we can look forward to more of his work being translated into English soon. He's just too good to be kept in exile.


Anonymous,  22 June 2011 at 23:34  

sorry I took time to comment will ,this sounds like its got a folk tales feel to it ,I ve not read his other book ,but out of two this one is the one that grabs my attention moreI m always interested in anything different and this seems it ghreat review will ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 23 June 2011 at 08:18  

Thanks for the comment Stu. It's certainly a very different book and Sjón a fascinating writer. Actually, following your own review of that Creole novel, there is definitely that folk tale, oral storytelling feel to things. Translated fiction seems to be much better at this kind of thing. I think we're not used to reading fiction that connects so directly with our own folk culture in this country, which is why David Hayden at The Folio Society highlighted Katherine M. Briggs' Folk Tales of Britain as an important book both now and far into the future.

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