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From the Mouth of the Whale

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From the Mouth of the Whale

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Author: Sjón
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Original Icelandic publication, 2008

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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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.

Translated by Victoria Cribb.


I was on my way home from the hunt. In my right hand I held my net, in my left a lantern, and in the pack slung over my back was my prey, a wild boar with tusks of steel; a colossal beast that had run amok in the lands of the north, wreaking havoc until the alarm was raised and I was charged with hunting it down. It was not the first of the North Wind's monstrous brood that I had laid low--the wolf that wept tears of milk, the one-footed water hare, the bull elk with the golden pizzle, and the queen of the shag-haired trout had all made acquaintance with my net--but this huge-tusked boar was without doubt the most savage brute the north had ever snorted from its icy nostril.

Instead of leaving the carcass on the bloody field as the laws decreed, I brought it with me, intending to cast it at my brothers' feet. Then the Father would see which of his sons labored hardest to keep our world in check: those who never stirred from the all-encompassing paternal abode where they occupied themselves with administrative business (such was the euphemism for courtly life), or I, who flew far and wide, dispatching monsters.

The void crunched under my heels as I strode homeward. A head the evening meal awaited me in the glorious, scintillating palace with all its towers and spires streaming into space like the babbling of a newborn sun. I meant to rise to my feet between the main and dessert courses, walk over to my brothers, and whip the steel-tusker from my pack. But I had not gone far before I perceived that all was not well in Seventh Heaven. There was no watch at the gate, no call of "Ho, who goes there?" from the ramparts, no sound of merrymaking from the banqueting hall, no lovers enjoying a secret tryst in the gateway. Instead, my trained hunter's ears caught the rustle of nervous wings and the anguished moans that stick fast in the throat. I threw down my lantern, net, and pack. Next moment I was in the courtyard; an instant later I was running up the steps to the throne room, where I flung open the doors.

Conditions in the chamber were sickening; many of the angels were laughing with fear, others were weeping with hollow laughter, still others laughed and wept at once. The Ophanim had cast off their robes and knelt with brows pressed to the cold steps of the throne, letting fly with knotted scourges on their blazing shoulders. The youngest brothers were running around the chamber as aimlessly as babes, ceaselessly screeching their Father's Name. The most sensitive were slumped against pillars and benches, vomiting spasmodically, the ectoplasm gushing from their mouths to flow unchecked over the azure floors of Heaven. Underlying the hideous spectacle was the whispering sound that is formed when sheer despair filters out into the flight feathers, causing the soft plumes to tremble and the air to play over them with a shrill whistling like a blade of grass blown by a child; it was this sound that had breached the encircling walls of the palace and carried to me on my homeward road: the true alarm call of the angels.

"He is dead!"

The thought, lancing my mind, left my body momentarily stunned: the unthinkable had happened! I was on the verge of losing control of myself when I noticed the stench. An odor reached my nostrils, an odor never before smelled in my Father's house and hitherto outlawed in Heaven. For the worlds He created, with all their creatures and plants, and His own world were prohibited from meeting; like light and darkness, as He Himself decreed. Yet the stench that now tainted the air in His palace was the stench of blood and urine, sweat and sperm, mucus and grease.

I looked at the Father, who was lounging at ease on His throne. From His manner you would have thought all was well in paradise; His ice-bright head was lowered a little as He examined something small in His palm. At His left hand stood my brother Michael, apparently the only one to be in control of his feelings. But I, who knew Michael better than anyone, saw that the smile playing over his lips was the familiar grimace that he used to assume when admitting himself defeated in our games. He inclined his head slowly toward me, without taking his eyes off whatever it was our Father was holding.

Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow. Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over onto your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes--mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was "I." But the Father interrupted you and addressed me in an affable but commanding tone:

"Lucifer, behold Man! You must bow down before him like your brothers..."

I looked at you a second time and in that instant you released a stream of slimy black feces. Quick as lightning, you shoved your hand under your buttocks, fetched a fistful of whatever you found there, and raised it to your mouth.

As all the world knows, I did not bow my knee to this new pet of my Father's, and for that I was cast out of Heaven along with all who wished to follow me. But my parting gift to you, Man, is this vision of yourself.

Copyright © 2008 by Sjón


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