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From the Mouth of the Whale

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  1,605 ratings  ·  256 reviews
The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty and cruelty. Men of science marvel over a unicorn’s horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret and both books and men are burnt. Jónas Pálmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jó ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published May 2011 by Telegram (first published 2008)
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Mar 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: iceland, fiction
I get very annoyed with all those TV shows set in the Middle Ages that are full of clean bodies, white teeth, dust-free floors and brightly-lit rooms. This is not a problem that From the Mouth of the Whale suffers from. Its appeal lies primarily in the dirt under its fingernails; it revels in the mess and violence and, also, the transcendence of its pre-modern milieu. It's a novel that smells of unwashed bodies and sea-salt.

We're shown this world through the travels, visions and tribulations of
This book is beautifully written. It's lyrical. It picks you up and carries you along. You are swept through streams of consciousness, and through herbal medicinal books, and then through third person narrative. You switch from one to the other seamlessly. It's a masterpiece in that regard.

But I am left with one overwhelming question.

What the fuck was that all about?

I mean I get it. It's the story of Jonás the Learned and his exile. It's about the amazing things he does or witnesses before he is
A pretty solid novel which - after not being particularly impressed by The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse - gave me some understanding of all the fuss about Sjón.

It's also a satisfying read for the early modern European history buff, given that in English we don't hear much about seventeenth-century Iceland and Denmark without looking for it. From the Mouth of the Whale is based on the life-story of Icelandic autodidact Jón the Learned, here renamed Jónas, who, like many famous thinkers of his
Jun 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: iceland, 2020-read
Sjón writes postmodern novels that tell very contemporary tales while referring to history, mythology and folklore (that is, if he isn't busy writing Oscar-nominated music with his friend Björk or up to other adventures in his native Iceland). In "From the Mouth of the Whale", the real historic background is the life story of Jón lærði Guðmundsson ("Jón the Learned"), a 17th century Icelandic poet and scholar who was seen as a magician - at the time, science was often deemed sorcery. Sjón gives ...more
The stream-of-consciousness style took some getting used to, but once I fell into the rhythm of Jónas’s voice, it went pretty smoothly. There’s a mix of poetry and history in here, with its trials and tragedies, of magic and nature, of science and religion. And a strong smell of sea salt. The Prelude must be my favourite, though, I read it three times and loved looking for ways in which its themes echo throughout the novel.
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Withdrawn from Tower Hamlets Libraries

Description: The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty, and cruelty.

Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret, and both books and men are burnt.

Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his gift for cu
Mark Staniforth
Mar 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
From the raw, volcanic landscape of early seventeenth century Iceland, with ancient myths of mermen and unicorns tumbling from its fissures; a land of endless nights, burning snow and whales the size of mountains; Sjon has crafted an extraordinary novel, which has been deservedly longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
'From The Mouth Of The Whale' conjures a precipitous landscape upon which early Lutheranism has taken a violent hold, making the population paranoid of old pagan ritu
I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing's early reviewers program.

I feel completely unqualified to review this because I've never read anything like it before and I didn't understand half of it. It was difficult for me to piece a time line together or separate fact from fantasy or figure out even the basics of what was going on -- all the more so since the book had very few paragraphs and also, for the most part, lacked proper sentences. Most sentences ended with an ellipsis instea
Chihoe Ho
Call it Sjón-fatigue, I found myself having a really hard time getting through "From the Mouth of the Whale." Granted, it is a longer novel than "The Blue Fox" and "The Whispering Muse," but reading three books of his back-to-back was probably not such a great idea.

As with the previous two, the story is captivating so the fault doesn't lie here. In fact, I'm not sure if it's possible to pinpoint an exact 'fault' since all the elements were in place but they just didn't gel as well as I hoped it
Sep 21, 2017 rated it liked it
A confusing book. I read it for my book group without any idea what to expect. So far as I can recall this my first foray into the world Icelandic fiction. I say fiction, ‘From the Mouth of the Whale’ is a historical novel and is based on the life of Jón the Learned here renamed Jónas Pálmason.

The Prelude is a variation on the story of the fall of Lucifer. Then follows part 1 Autumn Equinox, 1635, and through to part 4, Spring Equinox, 1639. Through these four years we find out about Jónas' rem
Betty Asma
Dec 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The author chose a difficult subject, four years of the early seventeenth century Iceland before Icelanders are limited to trade only with the Danes. Catholicism in its ritual and its charity has been superseded by Lutheranism. The former is secretly practiced but lack of avenues for charity worsens unfortunate years. Black arts (sorcery) is condemned yet scientific practices and views by contrast to superstitious beliefs are considered suspect. The surrealism and stream-of-consciousness narrati ...more
Parrish Lantern
In the prelude to this tale we follow a hunter on his way home from hunting some colossal and huge tusked boar, “the most savage brute the north has ever snorted from it’s icy nostrils”, although the traditional way is to leave the carcass where it fell, the hunter is carrying it home to demonstrate to his father, which of his sons labours the hardest. Home, we the reader, learn is called “Seventh Heaven” and all is not well, the gate guards are silent, there’s no sound of merrymaking from the b ...more
Aug 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating novels I've read in some time. From the Mouth of the Whale is the meeting-place of surrealism and paganism, very Icelandic. It's the story of the exile of an alchemist and exorcist, of his understandings of the strangeness of the world.

Central to that understanding is the interconnectedness of all things. But this wholeness isn't just that "All is One" kind of New Age epiphany (or even Emerson, for that matter). It becomes a rationale (without being didactic) for a s
Charles Dee Mitchell
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: contemporary-lit
Sjon's first novel to be translated into English was The Blue Fox. It was a spare eighty pages long and took the author two years to write. In an interview he said of the process

The first year was more or less spent researching 19th century Iceland and reading about the different subjects that make up the story, such as fox hunting, accidents at sea, avalanches, burial rites, the care or abuse of mentally handicapped people, opium smoking, cravats and bow-ties (late Byronesque or otherwise).

Aug 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
I had no idea what to expect from this, but knew that the author was an award-winning lyricist who worked with Bjork.

You occupy the mental space of an Icelandic poet and healer in 1635, and you will not always know what he's going on about so feverishly. The book does an excellent job of recreating the feeling of picking up a strange artifact you have no hope of fully understanding, and there were times when I almost gave up, alienated...but Jonas is plucky and earnest, peppering the narrative
Dane Cobain
Sep 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sjon is an Icelandic author who I’ve read before, though only once (with The Blue Fox). He’s known for his collaborations with Bjork and it’s easy to see why they’d make for a good combination, because both of their stuff is nuts.

This one reads like a sort of mixture between historical fiction, magical realism and religious text. It’s also interesting because it was originally written in Icelandic, and I always find it interesting to see how translated fiction retains some of the flavour of its
Therése Åström
2,5⭐ I liked this book, but I also think I missed out on half of what it was about because of how it was written. I don't like feeling stupid when I read books, but with this one I did, and still I enjoyed it. Weird. ...more
May 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: translation, fiction
set in mid-17th century iceland, sjón's from the mouth of the whale (rökkurbýsnir) is perhaps a little more enigmatic than either the blue fox or the whispering muse - but surely no less gratifying. the icelandic poet and novelist (and björk collaborator) composes works that hybridize contemporary and surrealist elements (incorporating some icelandic folklore for good measure), resulting in enchanting novels characterized by lyrical, melodious prose. from the mouth of the whale follows the fate ...more
Bradley Skaught
Aug 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The Whispering Muse hinted at the kind of wild, hallucinatory epic Sjón was capable of (cleverly restrained in that particular novel), and he lets loose with it in From The Mouth of the Whale. Mythology, Christian epic, natural history, medieval Icelandic history and the whole, wide, boundless mind of a banished healer/visionary/poet are among the elements that make up this strange and haunting novel. Told mostly from his exile on a lonely island in 1635, Jonas Palmason's scattered, hungry thoug ...more
Sep 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
"The realm of the specific is what provides you with stories, and hopefully, if they are well told, they'll speak to people everywhere."
[Sjon, from an interview with David K Gestsson]

Thus, this wonderful tale set in early 17th century Iceland, succeeds in reaching readers over time and cultures. It is told in the voice of Jonas the Learned, a self taught polymath, whose lingering pre-Reformation sensibilities set him at odds with the new Lutheran order. The violent upheavals of the Reformation w
Nov 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Really impossible to describe – this is one strange but truly wonderful book!

The prelude (which is very different from the book itself) had me instantly hooked – but when I hit Chapter I, I was struck by the number of long Icelandic names and obscure references (cultural, biblical, historical). Despite the strong start, I suddenly wondered if I would be able to finish it.

Within a few pages, however, I was completely immersed again. The power of this book is in the author’s power of descriptio
This is another book I read spread over a few weeks and which i finished to dot the i's and cross the t's as it turned out to be disappointing and far from what I expected (a blow me away novel, possibly a candidate to a top 10) from both reviews and the sample.

I found myself reading the novel and not making any real sense of it - i would understand of course each word, each sentence or phrase and each paragraph, but nothing cohered into a whole; maybe it's the author's style, maybe the translat
Jan 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The cover of the book has pull quotes from Junot Diaz, A.S. Byatt, the WaPo and the Independent, and though I don't usually attend to them, in this case, they're are true. From the Mouth of the Whale IS "kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, an epic made mad, wildly comic and incandescent, hallucinatory, lyrical, extraordinary." It's a captivating meditation that enfolds you totally into its world-- I could smell Iceland on it's pages, and was reminded of the time we've spent there- the quiet, the gras ...more
Anna Kuhl
Jun 26, 2016 rated it liked it
I am not philosophical enough for this book, and yet . . . It was strange and sad and I enjoyed it.
May 04, 2017 added it
Shelves: unfinished
I read the prologue and couldn't go on. It felt like something an angry teenage heavy metal fan might have written to "shock" his sixth grade teacher. Silly and pompous.


Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
2.5 stars
I didn't get this book.
so this was my third sjon book in a row and I think sjon just isn't for me. this was the best of the three, but I pretty much only read it at lunch (which is why it took me ages to finish it, I have 1/2 hour lunches and usually I have to get food first and sometimes I do errands instead). I was never interested enough to read it at home, which isn't a good sign.

the book does blurb itself as a modern day (well, it's set in the 1600s) icelandic saga, which should have tipped me off - I have a boo
Aug 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Life in Iceland is portrayed as bleak, harsh in the 1600's - with the main character recounting various key points in his life - healing women's ailments as a young person, the death of 3 of his children, exile to an island where his only companion is a sandpiper and so on. It is interwoven with elements of myth and magic, making it a time when humans lived precariously and are threatened by the wild and superstitious thoughts and actions of others. ...more
Apr 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
I feel like if i read this a second time i would move it up to 5 stars! It is very layered and interesting and i plan on reading it again.
Marthe Bijman
Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
I went to Iceland in August 2017 in the company of a Geologist to see volcanoes and other spectacular geological formations, not to go look at the places where Game of Thrones was filmed. It was not literary tourism, though I took with me Sjón’s award-winning 2011 novel, From the Mouth of the Whale, which is set in 17th century Iceland, on one of the country’s particularly barren and lonely offshore islands or islets. I wondered how well Iceland would match his descriptions of the towns and land ...more
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The World's Liter...: From the Mouth of the Whale. Sjón 7 20 May 30, 2015 09:28AM  
Interview with the author 2 18 Aug 25, 2012 11:19AM  

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Sjón (Sigurjón B. Sigurðsson) was born in Reykjavik on the 27th of August, 1962. He started his writing career early, publishing his first book of poetry, Sýnir (Visions), in 1978. Sjón was a founding member of the surrealist group, Medúsa, and soon became significant in Reykjavik's cultural landscape. ...more

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