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From the Mouth of the Whale Paperback – November 22, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Sjón, winner of the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literature Prize and an Oscar nominee for his musical work with Björk, presents a lyrical novel set in seventeenth-century Iceland, where poet Jónas Pálmason lives in exile on barren Gullbjörn’s Island. Here, with a sandpiper as his only companion, Jónas recalls the varied events and misfortunes of his life while ruminating upon the origins of nature, humanity, and his perpetual thirst for knowledge. A self-taught healer, Jónas hones his craft to treat women’s various ailments. He also recollects subsequent events, from his marriage to his beloved Sigga, who later joins him in exile, to a particularly memorable exorcism of the corpse of a parson’s son, to a harrowing massacre of Basque whalers by fellow villagers. As life in exile begins to wear on Jónas, he is transferred to Copenhagen, where he joins doctor and philosopher Ole Worm to study scientific writings and drawings. Jónas is finally able to experience the freedom, however fleeting, he so desires. Intense and enigmatic, Jónas’ tale unfolds with the power of both myth and memory. --Leah Strauss


‘Sjón writes like a madman. His novel is by turns wildly comic and
incandescent, elegant and brittle with the harsh loneliness of a world
turned to winter.’ Washington Post

"Sjón is the trickster that makes the world; and he is achingly brilliant.From the Mouth of the Whale is strange and wonderful, an epic made mad, made extraordinary."—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"Hallucinatory, lyrical, by turns comic and tragic, this extraordinary novel should make Sjón an international name. His evocation of seventeenth century Iceland through the eyes of a man born before his time has stuck in my mind like nothing else I’ve read in the last year." —Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist and My Revolutions

"Sjón is a poet, and the aesthetic excitement is his own. He is an extraordinary and original writer. And his translator, Victoria Cribb, is also extraordinary in her rendering of the roughness and the elegance, the clarity and the oddity of this splendid book." —A.S.Byatt, The Guardian

'Beautiful prose, sharp observation of nature, folklore, poetry, grotesque violence, human loss, and outright comic chaos weave in and out of this confidently written novel in which the narrative tone is in perfect pitch with the story being told.' New York Journal of Books

“It gracefully captures the spirit of the age...a moving and often humorous tale” Winnepeg Free Press

"Intense and enigmatic, Jónas’ tale unfolds with the power of both myth and memory." Booklist

"The narrative is kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, comic and poignant by turns. Victoria Cribb’s translation brilliantly captures these multiple changes in tone and scene. From the Mouth of the Whale should open up a world of Icelandic writing, ...a world of nature and of ideas, which stands comparison with the Iceland of the Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness." —Carolyne Larrington, The Times Literary Supplement

"This is an extraordinarily accomplished novel that challenges and informs the reader in equal measure. Victoria Cribb's superb translation conveys the intricacies of Sjón's language, Jonas's strange turns of phrase, and the novel's meandering narrative." —Lucy Popescu, The Independent

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Telegram Books (November 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846590833
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846590832
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,828,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By B. Case TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 1, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you decide to read Sjón's novella, "From the Mouth of the Whale," you'll be choosing to engage in an extremely unique experience. The story meanders in an odd fashion and it is often confusing to determine exactly what is happening and where it is taking you. But no matter where you are in the text, you will be compelled to continue. Why? Because the tale is consistently mesmerizing, horrifying, amusing, humorous, and lyrical. To my mind, a plot summary would be completely inept at preparing you to understand where this book might take you. You'll just have to jump in and let this odd gem transport you into its own strange form of bizarre and confusing reality: half Iceland and Denmark in the early part of the 17th century, and half a fantastical and hallucinogenic dreamscape morphed from a combination of superstition, mythology, close scientific scrutiny, and religious ecstasy.

The book places you in the mind of a man like no other you're ever encountered. You'll meet Jónas Pálmason (also called Jónas the Learned), a good man born with an all-consuming hunger to understand the natural world, a man with keen scientific curiosity, but a man hampered by the dark and brutal social and psychological realities of the times in which he was born. He is portrayed with exquisite psychological and lyrical depth, yet he exists in a world teeming with supernatural and religious realism.

Of course, this is a modern Nordic sage, but it is also a charming and enlightening character study like no other you may ever have experienced. In essence, it attempts to place you in the mind of a person from a long bygone era. Too often, when we read about people from the distant past, we encounter modern humans cloaked in the trappings of the age.
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Format: Paperback
Icelandic author Sjón's latest novel follows the life of Jónas Pálmason, an Icelandic man sentenced to live out his life on a bleak and uninhabited island after being convicted of outlawry for practicing the arts of sorcery and necromancy. The novel, which is set in the years 1635-1639 when Jónas is in his mid-sixties, is Jónas's poetic and surreal stream of consciousness touching on the major events of his life, including laying to rest a troublesome ghost who haunts a remote village and meeting and falling in love with his wife.

Aside from a brief trip to Copenhagen to plead his case, the whole of Jónas's story is confined to his island. After years of solitude, Jónas's identity has merged with that of his desolate surroundings:
"I am the brother of all that divides, all that curls, all that intertwines, all that waves ... after the day's rain showers the web of the world becomes visible ... the moment night falls, the beads of moisture glitter on its silver strings ... nature is whole in its harmony."

Jónas's weighty and formal voice makes his story feel almost Biblical, calling to mind the universal conflict between innovation and repression. And, like that of many visionaries throughout history, Jónas's tale is filled with loathsome villains "who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, from the livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner.
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I will start by saying that I don't think I `get' this story. By the end, I was left with more questions than answers. Was the main character, Jonas Palmason, a real historical figure? Was he mad, or just very imaginative? Was Jonas his real name? Was he one man with two names, or two men with one name? The cover of my copy carries a promotional quote: "Hallucinatory, lyrical, by turns comic and tragic..." It is all of these things, but it feels stuck in second gear, never really taking off. At the ending, the payoff is small. And the mouth of the whale of which the title speaks occurs in the afterword.

I was prompted to read this book when I learned that the author is from Iceland. Having had an enjoyable visit to Iceland some years ago, I am intrigued by all things Icelandic. I was hoping for something raw and epic, like Iceland itself. However, I feel that this story could have occurred in almost any coastal town in Medieval Europe, and that there was little that was uniquely Icelandic about it.

The real story for me began past the hundredth page, in the chapter called "Kidney Stone." There, our hero, a man convicted of allegations of sorcery through the political schemings of a morally corrupt official in his native Iceland, travels to Copenhagen in hopes of justice and a pardon from the Danish authorities. This section is sandwiched between chapters at the beginning and end of the book which are essentially the first-person rantings of Jonas in his angry and somewhat unhinged state, which convey character but don't supply much in terms of furthering the story.

There's one dream passage late in the book, where he's swimming deep into the ocean to have a conversation with a dead man, that is particularly beautiful to read.
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