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Sunday, 1 July 2012

From The Mouth Of The Whale - Sjon - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012


One of my all-time favourite Academy Award moments was watching Bjork turn up to perform the award nominated song “I’ve Seen It All” in that famous swan dress - which was apparently auctioned for the charity Oxfam a few years ago. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about you can watch the video of her performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnEJUio2DiE&feature=related . The point of this (besides Bjork being Icelandic of course), is that the song was co-written by Sjon, whose second novel “From The Mouth Of The Whale” was the first from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist that I tackled. And what an outstanding novel this was.

Even though I know not a word of Icelandic I am pretty confident in announcing a huge “hats off” to Victoria Cribb for an outstanding effort with her translation. The challenge of bringing a tale to life with relentless mid 1600’s references and thoughts is more than admirable.

Our journey opens with a “Prelude” where a person is relaying a tale of bringing home a wild boar with tusks of steel, which had wreaked havoc on the lands of the north. This boar “was without doubt the most savage brute the north had ever snorted from its icy nostril”. Even more so than the wolf that wept tears of milk, the one-footed water hare, the bull elk with the golden pizzle and the queen of the shag-haired trout. He was bringing home the carcass to prove to his father which of his sons laboured hardest to keep the world in check (his brother “never stirred from the all-encompassing paternal abode where they occupied themselves with administrative business”). As our writer gets closer to home he senses unrest and eventually arriving home his father reveals the cause of concern, it is resting in his hand:

Yes, 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’.

Our writer is of course Lucifer, and his Father (God) is holding Adam (humanity) in his palm. We then move into four parts of the main novel, Autumn Equinox 1635, Summer Solstice 1636, Winter Solstice 1637 and Spring Equinox 1639 with our narrator Jonas telling his tale from a bleak rock off the coast of Iceland where he has been exiled. A self-taught man of knowledge who is shamed by the general populace even though he can cure female ills, defeat ghosts and explain the mysterious unicorn horns in regal collections. Of course, his learning is his downfall, and you don't have to be Einstein to figure out the Jonas and whale connection.

The novel covers Jonas’ journey of how he came to this barren place, featuring intermittent notes from his journals (of herbs, sea creatures and more) as well as the truly lyrical stories of his past:

Yes, sandpiper, let us not deceive ourselves about the rung we occupy on the ladder of human society…Although you spread your wet wings and capture with them the far-travelled sunbeam, and I can hold up my thumb and forefinger till the moon is pinched between the tips like a pearl, neither of us will be able to hold on to our lucky catch.

My grandfather used to make all the paupers who boarded with him contribute something towards their keep…Much of this was of limited value as the wretched people had small aptitude for anything, but every little counts in a large household; the cat may seem inclined to do nothing but lick her fur but we would be overrun by mice if we hanged her for her vanity.

I’d normally not steal words from the one sentence blurb on the front cover, but a number of them do cover it so well. This is another novel that I am honoured to have stumbled across this year as the lyricism of the prose, the tragic tale and the meaning in almost every sentence led me on a hallucinatory tour into the superstitious minds of Iceland in the 17th century. I am grateful to “The Independent” for sponsoring such an award (this novel did not win the main prize!) and for giving me the opportunity to discover a new writer and translator of obviously enormous talent. 
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1 comment:

Dennis Zanin said...

I have been meaning to read this book since I read your review last year. Finally ordered it tonight after seeing your IMPAC shortlist on your Facebook page. Cheers.