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Sjón: Rökkurbýsnir (From the Mouth of the Whale)

Jónas Pálmason lives in Iceland in the early-mid 17th century. (The story opens in 1635 but, of course, we learn about his early life.) Jónas is known as the Learned, as he has studied and is a healer. However, both of these attract enemies in an Iceland which is both full of superstition and full of greed. (Cynics could say that this is like most countries at most periods in history.) But this is not the Iceland of Halldór Laxness or, rather, only partially that Iceland. Laxness paints a picture of a grim, dark, superstitious, foreboding Iceland. Sjón’s Iceland is like that but it is also an Iceland full of strange animals, unusual natural phenomena and fearsome ghosts. Ever since Jónas was a child, he has had the gift of healing, particularly able to cure women’s ailments but he has had to stop because touching women’s intimate parts was deemed unacceptable once he became a young adult. However, he has remained a healer and an exorcist as well as a poet and a learned man, expert in subjects from runes to natural history. His long-suffering wife, Sigrídur, is also learned. When they first meet, as young teens, she shows him how to predict a lunar eclipse.

Jónas has had problems all his life, as he is learned and this does not go well with the authorities. However, by the beginning of the novel, they have got him. At the request of his friend, Láfi, he has gone to help with an exorcism. The parson’s son, a weakly young man, had been urged to set out to find sheep in bad weather, not least to impress a comely maidservant. He had slipped over the cliff and died. Since then, his ghost has continued to torment the locals, biting one man on the testicles and attacking and frightening others. Láfi had been unable to cope so he had called in Jónas. The two confront the ghost, a horrible sight as his human body had been smashed up when he fell and he still looks the same. Jónas gradually persuades him to return to his tomb. As a result he is arrested for heresy, tried and banished to a barren island. After a while, his wife joins him. He barely survives – capturing a seal pup helps a lot – and he is unsure if he will ever be rescued. Eventually, a ship arrives and he is told that he is being taken to Copenhagen.

The ship docks and another man, a sack over his head, also gets on. It turns out to be Jónas’s son, who is a parson. The two go to Copenhagen, where they learn certain friends had interceded on their behalf. Jónas is taken to the house of a learned man, who turns out to be Ole Worm, famed for his museum, who is interested in Jónas’ knowledge of runes and natural history. Jónas is able to help – for example he points that what Worm thinks is a unicorn horn is merely a narwhal horn. The King hears his case and orders the Iceland court to reverse their ruling and Jónas has to return to Iceland to get the decision of the local court. They ignore the King and throw him into prison and then send him back to the island.

What distinguishes this novel, apart from the story, is Sjón’s style of writing. It is both poetic but also relentless. There is never a rest, as he piles on the thoughts of Jónas, strange and/or unpleasant events and all the bad things that happen to Jónas. As he and others remark, as soon as things seem to be going well, something awful happens to him and he is cast down again. Of course, part of the problem is that he is something of a rebel, refusing to go along with the powers that be, whether it is his refusal to take part in the massacre of the Basque whalers or his intellectualism. This is one of those books that you wish you could read in the original, as the language must be wonderful (though all credit to Victoria Cribb for her translation). However, we must be grateful to Telegram for giving it to us in English.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Bjartur
First published in English 2011 by Telegram