Friday 4 October 2013

From the Mouth of the Whale

(September 2013)

Difficult to pigeonhole, this one. That’s good; books that are difficult to pigeonhole generally promise to be much more interesting than those that neatly slot in the middle of your main genres. But convention demands some sort of slotting should occur, so let’s say magical realism and move on, shall we?

Or not. Because it’s never entirely clear how real the realism is, nor how magic the magic. There’s also a decent case to be made for plain old historical fiction. Jónas Pálmason is a learned poet, a magician, a healer and a sage. He’s also a bit of a self-pitying and self-deluding fool: he’s managed to get both himself and his wife exiled onto a godforsaken outcrop off the coast of Iceland in the mid-1630s, and things in general aren’t going all that well.

He fits firmly into a tradition of inept wise-men that includes Pangloss and Polonius and I’m not sure comparisons with the latter are wholly accidental. Iceland was a Danish colony at the time this is set and, during the only respite afforded Jónas of a brief trip to the motherland, the captain of his ship is called Rozencratz. I’ve no idea how common a name that is (or was) in Denmark, but it does mark the comparison with another supposedly smart man who turns out to have been wrong at pretty much every single juncture.

More obviously, there’s the whole Jonah thing (Whale, you see?), and Jónas certainly isn’t one for sharing Pangloss’ optimism. Poor old Jónas has been beaten with the shitty stick at every turn, often undeservedly so but it’s hard not to argue that he hasn’t exactly helped himself. That’s good for us though, because his self-pity and hard-won misanthropy are always lyrical, frequently astute, often grotesque, and occasionally very funny. He’s quite happy taking us from lofty observation on the glory of god’s domain or the base nature of man’s inhumanity to man to something like this –

What need had I to venture outside in the loathsome weather? Well, to empty my chamber pot of its paltry contents that had frozen solid in the night… no more than two droppings in this case, congealed in a single splash of piss. There are many reasons for this: firstly…

Whereafter we get a catalogue of his dietary, alimentary, and scatological complaints. For all that his claims to poetic virtuosity are overblown, he’s a keen observer of the world around him and his inner monologue is far superior to what snippets of formally composed verse he chooses to share with us. A contrast that makes his suffering even more poignant.

Funny how I’m talking about the character as author here, but that’s what happens. It took a while to get into, because stream-of-consciousness is never exactly straightforward, but once you get caught in the flow of the thoughts of this sad, world-weary, and above all odd little man, it’s very hard pull yourself to the safety of the riverbank. You just have to let it carry you along and hope that a friendly and/or divinely inspired cetacean might be there at the end to ferry you back to shore.


  1. "scatological complaints."

    Pretty sure I have never read nor heard that before in my life...British phrase?

    1. Not that I'm aware of. I'd like to claim it as one all of my own, but given the national obsession with bodily functions you may well be right...