The OF Blog: Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

Monday, June 03, 2013

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

One interesting trend that I've noticed when (re)reading the ten finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize is the large number of non-standard narratives.  In the books already reviewed, one can see a first-person plural point of view (Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic), a multi-level literary forgery/fictional family tale (Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur), and a narrator who may or may not be suffering from dementia (Kjersti Skomsvold's The Faster I am the Smaller I Am).  Even the other work already reviewed, Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, utilizes character dialectic speech in a fashion not often seen in contemporary novels.  Therefore, it was little surprise to see that Icelandic novelist Sjón's novel, From the Mouth of the Whale, adds to the diversity of the shortlist's narrative styles with its mixture of the historical and the feverish, quasi-fantastical worldview of early 17th century Iceland.

From the Mouth of the Whale moves back and forth in time, from the exile of Jónas Pálmason to his recollections of his education, exorcism of a walking corpse, and the massacre of visiting Basque whalers.  Told in first-person point of view, From the Mouth of the Whale derives much of its narrative power from its deceptively unreliable narrator.  In using "unreliable" to describing Jónas, it is not to denote that he is being purposely deceptive, but rather that Sjón is exploring a worldview that would be remotely alien to us, as "science" and "magic" were not seen in the 1630s Iceland as being true/false opposing entities but rather as complementary disciplines between which Jónas maneuvers during his life.  Take for instance this scene about a quarter into the novel:

"That's the sort of nonsense that landed us here in the first place."

What she says is true, though she should know better than to call it nonsense; it would be more correct to say that it was my intellectual gifts that marooned us here.  Or rather, exiled me here; it was her decision to make them row her over to share my fate.  Poor woman.  But it is probably the lesser of two evils to be the wife of Jónas and share a barren rock with him than to live among strangers.  Or so I gathered form the way people spoke to her on the mainland.  The saddest thing for me is that her loyalty is misplaced.  I have done this woman nothing but harm.  She was opposed to my heeding the summons of Wizard-Láfi Thórdarson, alias the specialist and poet Thórólfur, when he asked me to go out west with him and exorcise the troublesome ghost.  For that was the beginning of my misfortunes.  That is how we came to lose everything.  How did our paths cross?  It was during the eclipse of the sun, if I remember right.  I do not dare ask her; women think men ought to remember that sort of thing.  Last time she was scolding me for my madcap ideas, I asked her why she had come back to me if not to take up the thread where we left off when I had to crawl alone into hiding due to the persecution by the Nightwolf and Sheriff Ari of myself Jónas the Learned and my son Reverend Pálmi.  Indeed, why was she here if not to assist me in my investigations into the workings of the universe?  For that is how it used to be.  Now it is as if my enemies have given her the task of "bringing me to my senses," as more than one, indeed several, of my tormentors call it.  Yet that is not fair, for when I hinted as much the other day, she responded:

"If anyone knows there's no chance of bringing you to your senses by now, Jónas Pálmason, it's me." (pp. 76-77)
For most of the novel, Sjón adroitly mixes this combination of science and superstition to create a vividly-drawn 17th century Iceland that is fascinating.  Of particular interest are the stories of Jónas's exorcism (in which it is difficult to discern if he is lucid or experiencing a hallucination) and of the tragedy of the Basque whalers who suffered a horrific fate at the hands of the locals.  Sjón manages to narrate these stories with aplomb, as Jónas's recollections of each smoothly transition from the literary present back to these events and then forward again in time without there being a noticeable change in tone.  It is a narration of an extraordinary life combined with a cultural history of a true BFE backwater, with each informing the other, ultimately leading to a tale that insidiously grabs the unsuspecting reader's attention until she is quickly reading the pages.

Yet there are some flaws here.  Jónas's character, fascinating as it is for much of the novel, sometimes disappears too much into the narration, particularly later in the novel.  The carefully-maintained balance between the real and irreal breaks down toward the end as well, making for a more difficult discernment of the narrator's lucid thoughts compared to what appear to be flights of fancy.  Normally this would not be a major criticism, but it does destroy the tone established for the majority of the novel.  From the Mouth of the Whale is not a bad novel; for the most part I did enjoy reading it.  But it is a flawed novel and compared to the other nine finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it, along with two others, are noticeably weaker in terms of structure and execution.  It is a novel worth reading, but it is not as good as the majority of the ones on this strong shortlist.

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