I’m back with more from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and today we’re off to the frozen north for a book about… well, a lot of different things really. Pack your harpoon, and let’s get to it…
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb)
Jónas Pálmason, an auto-didact in seventeenth-century Iceland, has been banished to a small island, ostensibly for his religious beliefs, in reality for refusing to follow a local leader’s instructions to take part in a massacre of visiting whalers. As he sits on his cold, lonely prison in the Arctic Circle, he watches the natural life around him, spins yarns and fills the reader in on the story of his life. And it’s a very good one.
It’s actually quite difficult to really summarise From the Mouth of the Whale – it’s not that kind of book. It’s best to just sit back and read it, let the words flow over you and enjoy the magical twists and turns the narrative takes. The story begins with a short tale depicting the fall of Lucifer from a very different angle to the usual story, and it goes on from there, jumping from descriptions of the grim Icelandic countryside, to short encyclopaedic descriptions of plants, fish, birds and animals (both real and imaginary), to tales of myths and religion.
It’s a stunning mix of religion, history, science and mythology, and it reflects very well the state of life at the end of the sixteenth century, where belief in science and unicorns could (and often did) go hand in hand. At times, it is hard to see where the story is going, but that really doesn’t matter. The book is all about the journey, not the destination – the fact that there is one is an added bonus 🙂
The thing that lifts this book even further above your usual fare is a sparkling translation by Victoria Cribb, one of those rare, virtually seamless creations that make reading translated fiction a joy. It can be hard to judge a translation sometimes, especially if it is merely adequate, but when you have a good (or bad!) example, it leaps out at you. This is a very good one.
From the Mouth of the Whale is a relatively short novel, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and will have you looking Iceland up on Wikipedia for the next week (and possibly looking at the prices of flights to Reykjavik too!). Be warned though – even in the middle of summer the average temperature is only about 15 degrees Celsius. Perhaps you should just read some more Icelandic literature instead…
Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Yes. Next question
Will it make the shortlist?
Yes. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book, which augurs well for its shortlist chances. The translation, as discussed, is excellent, and that is always an advantage. Sjón also made the IFFP longlist back in 2009 with The Blue Fox, so he has form, again a bonus. And he has a cool name. What more do you want?
That’s all for this week – five down, ten to go. Same place, next week. OK with you?