Ethos in Exile
‘From the Mouth of the Whale’ is a blue burn of an Icelandic saga
Sjón is your father’s brother who, when asked for a story to pass the time, sings you a song instead. At first confusing and entirely unexpected, you snuggle up for the duration of the carol — and as he bounces you on his knee singing quite impressively with animated hands and eyes alive with ethos, you realize two things: one, He’s got you humming along to a song you’ve never heard, and two, You asked to hear a story when what you actually longed for was a song…
The author of From the Mouth of the Whale — an author-poet-librettist from Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland — is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson. He goes by Sjón in the literary world, although the pen name doesn’t imbue the same gravitas. Worry not, for From the Mouth of the Whale harbors no shortage of epic Icelandic phonology. This story, like most Sagas, involves the introduction and learning of many lively names and the characters who own them — the first of whom is Jónas Pálmason the Learned. Himself a writer and poet, Jónas begins his tale as an elderly exile who’s been wrongfully banished to a remote island for committing acts of sorcery during 17th century Europe.
Sjón weaves in and out of the life of Jónas the Learned, skipping back and forth through time to recount the man’s innocent and often times hilarious childhood while simultaneously reminiscing later adventures involving exorcism and family upbringing. This is From the Mouth of the Whale at a glorious glance: in one moment you’re reading a darkly visceral ghost story and in the next you’re experiencing the magical moment in which Jónas’ wife, Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir, gives birth to one of their children. In a cave. While fleeing danger.
The story never lets up — until it does.
Just like that, From the Mouth of the Whale uncoils as quickly as the novel spooled its latent momentum. It isn’t a particularly short book but it reads at lightning speed, and when it’s over you find yourself yearning for more of Sjón’s relentless prose and divine symbolism. I’ll be reading this one again; an exceptional song always deserves another listen!