This novel is an important contribution to Icelandic literature. It channels the past millennium's experience of nature and history in that peculiar place, but does not aspire to mere peculiarity. For this reason, it is a great shame that the book has been packaged for foreigners as a sort of offshoot of Björkian quirkiness.
Sjón has long been part of the creative circle that includes Iceland's most marketable pop icon, as are many of the currently dominant generation of Iceland's cultural, and even political, elite. I had thought, when I bought the novel on may way out of Reykjavik yesterday, that I would be mildly amused by the literary effort of a graduate of the '80s punk scene. I also worried that it might not be worth my trouble at all, that this would be another case, comparable to Sven Regener's forgettable novels, which he started writing when the physiognomy of middle age set in and he could no longer front the Berlin band Element of Crime with any dignity. But this is not one of those cases. Sjón is a writer of literature, who happens to have been present at some Sugarcubes shows (and, perhaps revealingly, joined them on stage to play, of all things, the air guitar).
The novel is called Rökkurbýsnir or 'Marvels of Twilight' in the original Icelandic, has for no apparent good reason (other than a disconnected if intriguing flourish in the final few paragraphs) been called The Mouth of the Whale in English. This too must have something to do with marketing. The perennial appeal of Moby-Dick maybe? Of course it is an admirable thing to produce even a faint echo of Melville, but that is not at all what Sjón aims to do. His is prose that frequently lapses into poetry as if by inward inclination. The mood of it is rapturous, at times almost reminiscent of Saint John the Divine's coda to the New Testament.
It tells us the story of a certain Jónas Palmasson 'the Learned', an early-17th-century Icelandic natural philosopher, runic scholar, and healer. He is self-taught, and syncretistic in his commitment to Christian faith and to Icelandic folk-beliefs. He is a devout follower of Paracelsus, and is something like what the Swiss physician and occultist might have ended up being if he had been born, liks Jónas, into what was essentially an Iron Age society, with few books and only a fairly barren natural landscape from which to learn.
Part of the narrative (though this is not a very narrative novel) concerns Jónas's voyage to Copenhagen, at the request of Ole Worm, the actually existing historical character who founded the Museum Wormianum, one of the largest cabinets of curiosities in early modern Europe. Worm has heard of Jónas's learnedness, and hopes that he can help him to decipher runic writing, something Worm in fact attempted in his Runir, seu Danica literatura antiquissima [Runes, Or, the Most Ancient Danish Literature] of 1638. Jónas is hesitant to aid Worm, since he has been persecuted in his home country for sorcery, and is in Denmark in part to clear his name. But he is happy to clarify for Worm the true origin of a purported unicorn skull. It comes from a narwhal: Icelandic traders had for centuries been duping Europeans who were willing to pay enormous sums of money for remedies made from a powder of the marine mammal's tusk, on the presumption that this came from the mythical terrestrial mammal. The build-up to the revelation of the skull's true origin is somewhat tedious for those of us who have read the 1628 treatise De Unicornu by Caspar Bartholin (Worm's brother-in-law), and it all starts to feel a bit too Eco-esque. Not surprisingly, this sequence is the one that is marketed most aggressively in the publisher's packaging of the novel. (Unicorns appeal, I gather, in roughly the same way Björk does.)
When I say that this is an important contribution to Icelandic literature I mean in part that the author channels a tradition that stretches back to a time when literature was meant to do something other than what it has been doing since the 19th century or so. Jónas has few books to read, does not know Latin, but is loyal to the idea that nature can be read, and that books, ideally, are epitomes of nature. Nature in turn is Divine Creation, and learning is the project of mastering the order behind this creation. One of the most touching sequences concerns Jónas's recollection of his first encounters with his future wife, Sigga:
Our courtship was one uninterrupted conversation about the origin of the stars, the nature of land and sea, the behaviour of beasts great and small, and although it was not conducted in Hebrew or in the angleic tongue as it was with Adam and Eve, it was nevertheless our hymn to Creation. We sat together into the early hours, investigating the delightful puzzles of light and shadow, such as what happens to the shadow of your hand when the shadow of mine falls upon it? Have they become one? Or has yours disappeared temporarily? And if so, where to?
In her youth Sigga correctly predicted an eclipse through astronomical calculation. Her kinfolk ran around like it was the end of the world, but she was calm. She and Jónas both embody an approach to learning that is 'scientific', in that it seeks to get things right, but also one step away from sorcery, in that it probes where one really isn't supposed to go (as a boy Jónas specializes in laying his hands upon the bellies of old crones, and diagnosing their 'female illnesses'). This shared disposition unites Jónas and Sigga erotically: science as a hymn to creation, as the basis of erotic love, and finally as a highly charged danger zone that borders on the magical. Sjón reconstructs with sympathy the world in which this all made sense.
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