Anfenwick's Reviews > From the Mouth of the Whale

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
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it was amazing

I really loved this book. I bet it didn't hurt that I read it while visiting Iceland and had something to compare the descriptions with. One thing that really, really didn't hurt is that just before reading this, I picked up a little book called The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days by Alda Sigmundsdóttir in an Icelandic hostel. It talks about the lifestyle, customs and beliefs of Icelanders of the era of Jonas Palmason, the protagonist of From the Mouth of the Whale. This really gave me a context for understanding Jonas and the things which happen to him which I would never have had otherwise. It really is just a 'little book' of the kind you read when you're a tourist, or buy as a souvenir, but I would highly recommend it to non-Icelanders to read alongside this (or preferably before).

Anyway - back to The Mouth of the Whale. There are four main chapters, each narrated by Old Jonas, one for each of the equinoxes and solstices. One of the obvious consequences is that you get a taste of Iceland all year round, and few places can be more seasonally contrasted. This doesn't mean the action takes place in the span of a year, because there's more than three months between each of these four days. Nonetheless, four days are enough, because Jonas tells his story in stream of consciousness mode, passing from observations of his environment to memories, to his actions of the day, to dreams and other spiritual experiences, to miscellaneous scientific, political or religious specifications. It seems true to life, in a way, that four days is long enough to rehearse the story of a lifetime. In the middle there's a chapter in the third person. Why? I don't know, but it relates action over more than a day, during a stage in which Jonas finds himself in quite an alien environment.

When you get writing like this, you get very complex characters, and Jonas is no exception. When I try to think about what sort of person he is, the little parable (or creation story) at the beginning of the book gets thrown into high relief. One of the things I liked best is the way Sjon set up a relationship between Jonas and the supernatural - one minute he's being skeptical, debunking superstitions, and the next he springs something absolutely outrageous: not a surprising combination for a man of the 17th century. He's a cultural misogynist who rather likes women which is unfortunate for him and for them (I learned that Icelandic society of his day could not lay claim to the reputation for gender equality it now enjoys). Wrapped up in Jonas' story is the sad story of Sigridur Thorolfsdottir, his very intelligent and extremely unfortunate wife, seen through his eyes. Jonas can be noble, though sometimes he isn't. When that happens, sometimes it's because of an understandable motivation, sometimes it's because he's being utterly air-headed. Basically, he's a revelation of humanity.

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Reading Progress

May 15, 2015 – Shelved
July 11, 2015 – Started Reading
July 25, 2015 –
page 40
July 29, 2015 – Finished Reading

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