Something strange and wonderful has washed up on our shores for these long winter’s nights. “From the Mouth of the Whale,” by the Icelandic poet and novelist known as Sjon, is a kind of “Robinson Crusoe” of the northern climes, an entrancing novel about the wonders and cruelty of a changing world. Originally titled “Rokkurbysnir” (“Twilight Marvels”), this is the second of Sjon’s novels to be translated into English, following “The Blue Fox,” which received the 2005 Nordic Council’s Literary Prize.
Sjon is the pen name of Sigurjon B. Sigurdsson, a writer of some renown in his native land whose work has been translated into two dozen languages and who has collaborated with the singer Bjork (earning an Oscar nomination for his lyrics in her movie “Dancer in the Dark”). His relative anonymity in the United States may well be remedied by this deft translation by Victoria Cribb, who manages to convey his complex shifts in tone and style.
“From the Mouth of the Whale” is the tale of Jonas Palmason the Learned, a self-taught naturalist on barren Gullbjorn Island off the coast of Iceland in the autumn of 1635. The Reformation had reached Iceland in the previous century, slowly changing the long-held beliefs and folk customs of the people. Caught copying a book of old Catholic prayers and “exorcisms and similar invocations of white magic to aid in the battle against the wiles of demons and other horrid sprites,” Palmason is banished at the ripe age of 61. He unpacks his troubles to his sole companion, a sandpiper on the shore.
His tale of wonder is based in part on the autobiographical writings of the real Jon Gudmundsson the Learned, a student of the writings of Paracelsus, the Swiss naturalist who believed that all parts of nature are alive and interconnected. As society changes from the mystical cosmology of the Middle Ages to the more rational worldview of the Renaissance, Palmason laments the loss of the old ways.
Over the course of four years on the island, Palmason tells the story of his life. We learn of his youth as a folk healer of women’s maladies and his discovery of an annual pilgrimage to an underground church filled with forbidden icons. He later uses the white magic of the old religion and poetry to exorcise a particularly mischievous and horrid ghost, a wraith of epic scatological powers. Balanced against this Nordic magical realism, the historical massacre of a group of traveling Catholic Basque whalers is retold through Palmason’s eyes.
Not all, however, is cruelty. The story of his marriage to the long-suffering Sigga and the birth (and short lives) of their children comes across as genuine and poignant.
Interspersed among these adventures, short excerpts of observations of the natural world reveal the mixture of science and folklore characteristic of the age. For example, we are told that the Sea-Speckle bird hatches from seaweed, and that moonwort is efficacious in stimulating childbirth and treating whooping cough.
Sjon 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. During the long night of the solstice, Palmason barely leaves his hovel and has scarcely enough food to survive. “On the beach all life has been scorched by the cold,” he says. “The sand is as hard as stone, the seaweed withered. Haddock and cod lie under the furthest rim of the ice, if they have not frozen to death too, but I have neither the strength nor the nerve to go out there, lacking a boat. What would I do there anyway? Talk the fish up through the ice?”
As with many things strange and wonderful, this novel presents challenges to the reader. It blithely mixes the historical with the surreal. The narrative mixes lyrical stream of consciousness with more conventional first-person and third-person narratives. An unnerving prelude about the creation of mankind makes sense only in retrospect, and the tail of the book turns to other islanders: Jon the Learned, Jonah and the whale from the Old Testament and John of Patmos from the New Testament. There is no other way to navigate such waters but to dive right in.
Donohue has published three novels, most recently “Centuries of June.”
FROM THE MOUTH OF THE WHALE
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Telegram. 271 pp. Paperback, $14.95