You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Sjon's first novel to be translated into English was The Blue Fox. It was a spare eighty pages long and took the author two years to write. In an interview he said of the process

The first year was more or less spent researching 19th century Iceland and reading about the different subjects that make up the story, such as fox hunting, accidents at sea, avalanches, burial rites, the care or abuse of mentally handicapped people, opium smoking, cravats and bow-ties (late Byronesque or otherwise).

Sjon, who is also an award winning lyricist, can pack a lot into a narrative.The Blue Fox involves an elaborately worked out revenge and ends with a priest freezing to death while debating a dead fox on the diabolical nature of electricity.

Compared to The Blue Fox, this second novel is long at 250 pages. A list of topics addressed in From the Mouth of the Whale would include eclipses, natural history, the Icelandic trade in unicorn horns, exorcism, toxic ignorance and married love. Jonas Palmason, known as "The Learned," receives an eccentric education from his father's fragmented library, but in 17th Iceland it makes him both admired and shunned in the communities where he lives. Although his medicine is learned from books, as a child he becomes expert in diagnosing women's ailments by feeling their bodies under their clothes. They like this more than they can admit. He can draw anatomical charts and maps, both of which are in high demand, but the Protestant reformers that have taken over the land find cause to brand him a witch for the research he does into the ancient customs of Iceland. For the rest of his life, he will be either on the run or imprisoned or living among the educated classes of Denmark as an admired equal. But for the most part he will suffer at the hands of those who fear his knowledge, knowledge that is very much a part of his time. The novel is interspersed with his comments on natural history, and modern readers will find them to be equal parts scientific observation and folklore. 
Jonas narrates the story from his final island prison. He has returned from Denmark expecting all charges against him to be dropped, only to find himself again in the hands of his enemies. When they agree to send him back to the island rather than to a dungeon, he looks forward finding his wife waiting for him there. Instead he finds only her bones. The story of their first meeting, which occurs during a funeral interrupted by an eclipse, captures the innate ignorance and savageness of their society.

I was as bewldered as the dogs that howled, the cats that hissed, the ravens that crawled along the ground, the cows that wandered dazed in the fields. I was as unfortunate as the rest, as unmanned by the dread of what catastrophe this eclipse might bring, what terrible tidings it might portend, what loss of life, what pestilence would now wash up from the sea on to our rock, what heresies, what insanity; indeed, I was as confounded as those that ran weeping round the yard or pressed their faces to the muddy paving slabs, tore off their clothes and any hair they could get hold of, many vomiting in mid-prayer...[T]hree men burst out of the front door carrying the old man's body. They swung the corpse's mottled limbs back and forth until it appeared to be raising its wizened arms to heaven...It did not take a great physician to realise that the old man was as thoroughly dead as he had been but a short time before. People now began to crowd around the threesome with their pathetic puppet...lifting it so it appeared to be proceeding in little hops to its intended destination, which was the roof of the living quarters.

During this event Sigridur, Jonas's future wife, explains the means of predicting eclipses, science she has worked out for herself through observation and a natural inclination for math. They are in love.

The chirping of small birds was stilled, the baying of the dogs was silenced, the people on the turf roof ceased shaking the corpse, a hush descended on the countryside and I felt suddenly cold. High above the Earth the disc of the moon completed its shape on the orb of the sun and in the same instant something was completed inside me. Neither Sigridur nor I looked up when the gable gave way with a loud crack beneath the weight of the corpse-bearers.

Jonas's story will also involve the successful exorcism of an angry ghost and the tragic tale of massacred Basque whalers at the hands of ingnorent Icelandic villagers manipulated by their venal community leaders. It's hard to imagine that Sjon will become a beloved voice of Icelanders, but his unflinching vision of meanness and ignorance goes beyond a critique of his homeland's history. He opens his novel with a scene placed in heaven. Lucifer has returned from a successful hunt to find the heavenly household in disarray.

...the stench that now tainted the air in His palace was the stench of blood and urine, sweat and sperm, mucus and grease...I looked at the Father, who was lounging at ease on his throne...He examined something small in His palm...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...the Father...addressed me in an affable but commanding tone..."Lucifer, behold Man! You must bow down before him like your brothers..." I looked at you a second time and in that instant you released a stream of slimy black faeces. Quick as lightning, you shoved your hand under your buttocks, fetched a fistful of whatever you found there, and raised it to your mouth.

I've noticed than when I really like something, I tend to quote a lot.

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