From the Mouth of the Whale

Mouth of WhaleThe Mouth of the Whale
by Sjon
2008 / 232 pages
rating 8.5 /historical fiction (mythical?)

Very unusual story of an Icelandic man, Jonas Palmeson (Jonas the Learned)  in the years 1635-1639 who along with his wife and children has been exiled to Gullbjorn’s Island for sorcery.  He communes with the birds and nature and thinks about a lot of Biblical/superstition stuff as he also relates to the reader what brought him here.

The book opens with a short Prelude (allusion to poetry or music? Sjon is a musician and poet) starting the reader out with the description of a serious disturbance in “Seventh Heaven,” where  the angels are in total chaos, the physical scene is horrific,  and Lucifer, the first person at this point, is about to be exiled because he will not bow down to that newly created abomination,  man.

We have some very obvious Biblical themes as well as some hard hits on the ideas of myth and exile.  I think the literary value may be the focus – it is beautifully and powerfully written – might I even say poetically – even in translation.

In Chapter 1, “Autumn Equinox, 1635,”   comes the basic story of Jonas in exile  with his family,  his memories and the birds – the natural world of Iceland’s eastern coast. There are 5 chapters, 4 of them numbered and named for a season,  taking place a few months or a year apart. There is also an un-numbered chapter called “Kidney Stone” which comes in the middle.


Worm’s Museum – click to enlarge

There are places where the narrative is almost stomach-tuning, other places where it’s so complex it becomes hard to follow, a few places where it’s uproariously funny and still others where it is simply beautiful. Sjon has produced a wide range for such a short book.

The theme? Probably the interaction between historical reality, myth and fiction – that’s an idea certainly all wound through the narrative.  It’s not a new idea or theme but Sjon presents it well including some  obvious verifiable history,  well-known myths and a lot of fiction.  Can you tell which is which?  (Yes, of course, for the most part,  but …)

One noteworthy thing, perhaps, is that a fair amount of the names and places in the book are historical –  Ole Worm and his museum for instance as a major example.  I googled enough to know that many of the powerful people mentioned have Wikipedia entries – not all, of course,  the book is fiction.

An excellent review at The Quarterly Conversation (March, 2012):


2 Responses to From the Mouth of the Whale

  1. winstonsdad says:

    I loved this when I read it Sjon miss the real and surreal so well


  2. Oh yes, Winson’s Dad, Sjon is so fine. I Lao loved his prior book, The Blue Fox. I think it’s time for a new one from him – just my wishful thinking.


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