From the Mouth of the Whale: A Novel

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9780374159030: From the Mouth of the Whale: A Novel

From the Mouth of the Whale is an Icelandic saga for the modern age. 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 burned.
Sjón introduces us to Jónas Pálmason, a poet and self-taught healer, banished to a barren island for heretical conduct, as he recalls his gift for curing "female maladies," his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjáfjöll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children. Pálmason's story echoes across centuries and cultures, an epic tale that makes us see the world anew.

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About the Author:

Sjón is the author of, among other works, The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse. Born in Reykjavík in 1962, he is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright. His novels

have been translated into twenty-five languages. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavík.

Excerpt. ę Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

KIDNEY STONE

 
Dazzling light: when the day is such a brilliant blue-white that the firmament is no longer a frame for the burning sun, rather the sun has become the kindling for a brilliant silver curtain that rises at the horizon and is drawn across the entire visible world, while the mountain ranges to the north, west, and south shimmer as if in a mirage, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight, but never still; and the sea is a sheet of billowing velvet, stretching from the shores of the island to the hem of the sky, while the island itself, glittering in its midst, is a yellow-gold button on a downy cushion, waiting to be dented by the head of the heavenly child; and the whole vision is run through with tinkling bright silk thread, nimbly tacked between earth and sea and sky and fiery sun with the great needle that can pierce every element. But tracing the blazing needlework means little to the human eye, for although one line springs from another, like vein branching from vein on a birch leaf or the back of one’s hand or a precious stone, this magnificent play of light is so small when set against eternity that to perceive the whole picture the spectator would have to step back into the next world, to stand beside the throne of the One who in the beginning opened His mouth and uttered the words: “Let there be light!”
And there was dazzling light.
*   *   *
Jónas the Learned sits on a rock by the shore, gazing at this world, which has silently merged into a single point of light. He has not taken his eyes off it since he sat down and the vision first began to take form, and now his pupils are like grains of sand, the protective film of tears has dried up; he urgently needs to blink but cannot lest the vision disappear before he can fix its details in his memory, which is essential if he is to interpret it. But in the end there is no avoiding it, either he must draw down the lids over his eyes or else he will go blind. He blinks. But instead of dissolving, the vision gains an addition: far to the northwest, in the angle of a cove where land meets sea in a glimmering mirage, a tiny black spot appears and begins slowly to move out into the bay. Careful not to lose sight of the sailing dot, Jónas shifts on his hard stone seat and takes a deep breath: this could be a long wait. He opens his eyes wide and keeps them like that until an infernal cramp seizes every muscle in his head, from the corners of his mouth to his crown, and his face is distorted into a ludicrous mask of suffering, but by then the dot has grown to the size of the smallest fingernail on an infant’s hand and the spectator dares to close his lids again for an instant. Next time Jónas looks at the dot it has changed shape and is no longer a dot but a diamond, a black diamond sliding over the silky smooth sea: it is the prow of a boat and that boat is making for the island.
There is a man standing in the bow—the watcher on shore squints in the hope of recognizing him (could they be bringing him supplies?), but the light falls on the man’s back—as yet he is only the silhouette of a man—and he raises his right hand in a grand gesture, as if waving to Jónas Pálmason the Learned. Jónas is about to wave back but lets his hand fall in his lap when he sees that the greeting was assuredly not intended for him. For as soon as the man’s arm comes to a stop above his head there is such a whooshing of feathers that the wind blows from all directions at once as every last bird in the north obeys the man’s command, swiftly swooping in from land and sea. Whether they have been endowed with large wings or small, speckled coats or black stockings, whether they are short of beak or long of shank, with heather in their crop or sand eels in their gullet, the birds answer the summons and circle like a whirlwind over the man, calling, squawking, chirping, until each finds its place in the sky above his head. When the down finally ceases to snow from their wings, Jónas sees that the flock has formed a living fan over the boat, in which a pair of each species (cock and hen, drake and duck, gander and goose) has lined up according to size, from the wren, fluttering at shoulder height around the man in the bow, to the puffin, which flaps frantically somewhat higher, to the piping whimbrel hovering above the mallard but below the cruel eagle, right up to the swans, cob and pen, beating wings so white that they rival the silvery firmament.
After studying this vision for a while, Jónas blinked, at which the man lowered his arm and pointed to the surface of the sea. In an instant the sea became as clear as a cool autumn evening and the boat appeared to be hanging in thin air rather than floating on water, for the ocean had grown so translucent that its bed could be seen far and wide, even to the horizon. Jónas saw now that the island was like a tapering peak; he sat not on a rock on the beach but on the edge of a precipice. Then the glassy sea began to boil, the deeps churned, and now the fish came swimming with rapid flaps of their tails, from south and east, from the shallows by the shore and the trenches beyond. There were redfish and whiting, shark and plaice, sea scorpion and halibut, thorny skate and cod, herring and seal, and all the other fish Jónas the Learned knew and others he did not. Observing the same rule as the birds in the sky, they arranged themselves according to size, from the keel of the boat to the bottom of the sea, sticklebacks at the top, sperm whales at the bottom, and so many species in between that when each pair was in place the shoal spread out in the clear brine like a scallop shell, a glittering reflection of the flying fan above. There was no respite for Jónas’s eyes as he cast his gaze hither and thither between sky and sea, memorizing the appearance of the birds and fishes, their similarities in color and shape, redwing and redfish …
All the while this spectacle lasted, the boat slid ever closer to the island—moving of its own accord though there was no wind in that still, cloudless, dazzling world—and had Jónas paid any attention to the figure standing in the bow he would have seen that he was a man in his forties, clad in a coat of gray-brown or gray-speckled homespun, with a homespun hat of the same color on his head, while under the brim could be glimpsed eyes that seemed to glow like glass orbs. The man swung his arm again, drawing the naturalist’s attention from the creatures of the heights and depths: this time he pointed to land. Then it appeared to Jónas as if in a revelation that from the shores of the sea to the peaks of the glacier a specimen of every kind of plant nourished by Icelandic soil tore itself willingly from mold and gravel—everything from the forget-me-not to the rowan tree—and the flowers of earth rose into the sky, light as mist from a mountain tarn. High in the sky, the grasses and herbs classed themselves according to their growth, twining together to form a vast garland that danced over the barren wastes, giving off a perfume so sweet that Jónas nearly swooned. But he had to stay awake, for the spectacle was not over: now the land animals entered the stage on a mossy stone, the fox and the field mouse; the little mice perching serenely between the foxes’ ears.
The man in the boat repeated his last movement, drawing back his outstretched arm and swinging it to shore. The ground opened. The mountains sloughed off their screes so that one could see deep into their bowels, where countless metals, crystals, and precious stones lay on different ledges, sparkling and glittering, many ancient, others newborn, reddened by the glow of subterranean fires and bathed in the waters of underground rivers.
“Yes, yes … Oh yes!”
Jónas Pálmason the Learned rocked on his boulder. Yes, there it was on the topmost seat, the highest ledge of all—that dearly bought metal that he had always suspected lay concealed in the unkind flesh of his motherland, the very blood of the Earth: gold!
“Did I not say so? They…”
He got no further. There was a blare of trumpets.
“Hoo-hoo-hoo!”
It is the swans, thrumming their vocal cords. The other creatures fall silent, the sea trout gently flicking its tail, the raven softly flapping its wings. The feathery trumpets sound a second time. Jónas looks up and realizes that the boat is nearing land. He rises to go and meet the boatman, buttoning up his jacket, running a hand through his hair. But then he becomes aware that the fanfare was not intended to welcome the boat. Far out on the rim of the sea to the north appears a school of whales, which swim rapidly south across the bay.
“Hoo-hoo…”
The clarion call is to welcome these newcomers to the game. In a synchronized water dance they dive beneath the boat and shoot their heads out of the sea beyond: twelve narwhals from Greenland. They raise their twisted horns, seven ells long, to the sky, clash them together, and cross them like the lances of a guard of honor, the whole dance conducted to the sound of high-pitched singing and a great splashing of fins. With this the vision is complete, an intricate, carefully thought-out coat of arms:
Bird in air,
mammal on moor,
fish in sea,
plant on shore.
Stone in ground,
man in the middle,
monsters of the sound,
submissive—no more?
*   *   *
The dazzling light played on the retinas of Jónas Pálmason the Learned, who had seen nothing so fair in all his sixty-three years on Earth. Ever since he reached manhood he had secretly longed for the good Lord to reveal to him the order of things, to allow him to examine how the world mechanism is put together. Once, when he and Sigrídur lived at Uppsandar, he thought he perceived in the sky the outlines of a colossal foot that rested on the globe of Earth. The sole was contiguous with the surface of the sea and the heel rested on the lowland beneath the glacier, while the shape of the ankle could just be made out where the sun stood at its noontide zenith. It must have been an angel.
Jónas fell to his knees, tears welling up in his eyes, his tongue dry and cleaving to the roof of his mouth. He lay down on his side, knees drawn up under his chin; he had goose bumps, a headache, and cramps in his muscles and guts. He broke out in a cold sweat. His senses had been strained beyond what a human can bear.
“Oh, do not let me lose my mind! I must hold on to my wits so that I can fix this revelation in a poem…”
He heard a crunch in the sand. A booted foot was planted beside his head. Jónas looked up: the man was standing over him. His boat was resting in a bed of seaweed. Nothing else of the vision remained. Man and boat, that was all. Sky and sea had recovered their true form. From Jónas’s point of view, the man was framed by clouds that darkened the lower one looked. A gull mewed. It was going to rain.
The stranger held out his hand to Jónas. It was an elegant, spatulate hand, the middle finger of which sported a silver ring engraved with an inscription. Jónas accepted the proffered hand and the man raised him to his feet. Still without releasing Jónas’s hand, he studied him curiously and said:
“Good day to you, Jón Gudmundsson the Learned.”
Jónas did not return his look. He was so preoccupied with trying to read the inscription on the ring that he apparently failed to notice that the man had addressed him by the wrong name. He returned the greeting absentmindedly:
“Yes, good day yourself…”
Before Jónas could make out a single word of the inscription, the man let go of his hand and, turning away from Jónas, said with authority:
“I’ve come to fetch you. You’re to prepare yourself for a journey.”
Jónas stopped brushing the sand off his clothes. Had he heard right? Was he free? The man continued:
“You’re to bring with you your drawing lead and wood-carving knife, which will come in useful where you’ll be spending the winter.”
“And where is that?”
“You’re going to Copenhagen…”
Jónas’s heart took a leap and he bounced on the spot, then raced off toward the hut, calling:
“Sigrídur, we’re leaving! We’re free!”
But Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir was not there. Jónas scanned his surroundings. He bounded up the slope above the hut, which gave a view of the whole island. Sigrídur was nowhere to be seen. He called her name, again and again. The man was bending over his boat on the beach, paying Jónas no heed. Jónas ran to him and clutched at his coat, squawking repeatedly:
“Where is she, what have you done with her?”
The man did not answer. Nor did he look up from his task. Moving without haste, he placed one oar in a cleft amidships, where it stood firm like a mast. This seemed such a curious arrangement to Jónas that it rendered him momentarily silent, giving the man a chance to speak:
“Just do as I told you and fetch your gear.”
“But what about Sigrídur?”
The stranger turned and Jónas saw his face for the first time. He backed away. The man had rather a small head with a face that narrowed toward the chin, a mustache and beard, and whiskers growing to the middle of his cheeks. Before his eyes he wore two glass lenses, which sat in a frame that was fixed behind his ears. As Jónas leaned forward to examine this contrivance more closely, the man shot out his left hand, caught hold of Jónas’s shirt, and pulled the island-dweller close. Laying his mouth to his ear, he said quietly:
“Sigrídur is standing in the hut doorway. You’re still caught up in your vision; that’s why you can’t see her.”
Jónas looked around and saw out of the corner of his eye that it was true. There was nobody standing in the doorway of the hut. He lost his footing, the cramp twisted his guts again, and he felt faint. He wanted to lie down, to curl up on the sand. The man tightened his grip on his shirt, held Jónas upright, and whispered:
“We’ll make sure she’s still here when you return…”
With his right hand he opened the neck of Jónas’s shirt and, splaying his fingers, ran his manicured nails quick as a flash along the rib in Jónas’s right side—the fifth, whether one is counting from top or bottom—flaying skin and flesh to the bone, right around to the back where he snapped the rib from the spine, then jerked it vigorously until the front end broke off the cartilage that connected it to the breastbone. Jónas felt no pain in spite of the blood that gushed from the wound and ran along the man’s fingers and down the back of his hand to his wrist. The man brandished the bone under his nose. The rib was fattier than Jónas would have expected: the summer had been kind to him and Sigrídur. He had managed to lure away a nine-week-old seal pup from the colony that bred on the southern side of the island. It had made a good feast. In fact, they had eaten more of it than they meant to and cured less for the winter. Jónas was delighted to see how much of the seal fat had transferred itself from the pup to him.
The man flung the rib bone away:
“That’s where you’ll find her!”
The bone landed in the doorway of the hut and bounced from there into a bed of heather beside the path below, where it came to a standstill. The man released his grip on Jónas and, pulling out a white handkerchief, began to wipe the blood from his hand:
...

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Descrizione libro Farrar Straus Giroux, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the Mouth of the Whale is an Icelandic saga for the modern age. 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 burned. Sjon introduces us to Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, banished to a barren island for heretical conduct, as he recalls his gift for curing female maladies, his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children. Palmason s story echoes across centuries and cultures, an epic tale that makes us see the world anew. Codice libro della libreria ABZ9780374159030

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Descrizione libro Farrar Straus Giroux, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the Mouth of the Whale is an Icelandic saga for the modern age. 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 burned. Sjon introduces us to Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, banished to a barren island for heretical conduct, as he recalls his gift for curing female maladies, his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children. Palmason s story echoes across centuries and cultures, an epic tale that makes us see the world anew. Codice libro della libreria ABZ9780374159030

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