From the mouth of the whale


I’m not really into historical novels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I don’t particularly love them or ever really let them into my reading life.

The first time I realised this I was in England, sitting amongst a group of academic colleagues, shooting the breeze in the aftermath of a reading group whose topic I can’t remember. When the talk turned to historical fiction, we slowly moved around the room (the conversation, that this – we, being historians, were perfectly happy sitting right where we were), discussing the merits of a whole raft of novels, most of which I’d never heard of, and many of which I can’t remember. (In my defence, the group included at least one historian of West Africa, a historian of the Middle East, and others working on a range of equally unusual topics, with equally exotic choices.) So I began to panic. What will I say when my turn comes? That I don’t have a favourite? That I don’t find them particularly inspiring? I couldn’t lie because my mind had drawn a blank and I couldn’t even think of a suitable answer. But could I tell the truth in the face of such admirable enthusiasm and risk bursting the bubble of a perfectly pleasant evening?

It never came to that. But neither did I ever come any closer to a favourite. And for nearly two years I lived a happy reading life, bouncing through everything from H. G. Wells to The Flame Alphabet. And then I found one. Or at least one that I love: Sjón’s brilliant novel, From the Mouth of the Whale. I came across it in the best way possible: completely by accident. I have a bit of an annual ritual, you see; buy a few new books, bring them on holidays, and make sure they’re to do with anything but history. Which, of course, only causes more stress, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll have failed to bring the list of ‘novels to read’ that you’ve collected over the year at just the time when you could do with it, because you’ve invariably left yourself too little time to decide and, well, the plane leaves tomorrow and you’re going to need something to read.

So there I was, browsing through the fiction section of Hodges Figgis, beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed by the gravity of my task. And there it sat, in the middle of one of those ‘best books of…’ displays that screams ‘we can’t think of a more obscure way to highlight some books we love, but damn it, we’ll try’. What did I know, except that I was (a) fascinated by whales; (b) enamoured by the cover; (c) on my way to Scandinavia on what the Dubs call ‘me holliers’ and could do with a book that fitted that vibe; and (d) running out of time because I had a train to catch and had – as usual – spent too long browsing and too little time making my way home?

Of course, this book is not really about whales. It has little to do with Scandinavia – Iceland is Nordic, you see. And, well, you should never judge a book by its fancy cover. But what a book! Set in seventeenth century Iceland, it follows the life of Jónas Palmason the Elder, his tribulations in exile, and his incredibly complex (and slightly odd) worldview. Along the way poltergeists are banished, Basque fishermen are murdered (brutally), and myths are demolished. But it’s the writing (and, obviously, the translation) that makes it. Not only has Sjón done his research, he manages to make us feel the history by dispensing with the rigidity of narrative and embracing the fascination with the fantastical that was at the heart of Icelandic society.

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 to the shore and the trenches beyond (118-119).

A. S. Byatt makes a wonderful observation about Sjón’s work in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books:

Iceland is a place of fierce contrasts, fire and ice. It is a land where real people believe in a matter-of-fact way that our visible world is interwoven with magic–a country in which the places are known where elves live and work. I have seen marked boulders where the doors to the other world are known to be. Sjón’s great variety of figures, simultaneously very sold and shape-changing and vanishing, are Icelandic, and beyond that European. He has changed the way I see things.

Her words hit me like a tonne of bricks. Maybe that is what I’ve been missing all along. Note to self: when it comes to historical fiction, the more fantastical, the less historical, and the more about feeling, about empathy, the better? Ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far. But at least the next time I’m in a room full of historians chatting about historical fiction – one of life’s regular occurrences, you’ll agree – I’ll have something to say.

– Kevin O’Sullivan

One response to “From the mouth of the whale

  1. Funny you should blog about historical fiction today. I spent last Saturday in Dublin Castle at the Festival of History run by Dublin City Council. A great line up, I must say. The late afternoon session, moderated by my buddy Seán Rocks, was all about historical fiction. The panel – Tim Severin, Katharine McMahon, and Robert Goddard all discussed the dangers and joys of historical fiction, and were ably questioned from ‘the floor’. I thought it was a great subject to bring up in an otherwise academic and ‘pure history’ atmosphere. Also, I was very impressed with the few sessions I managed to attend – all of them free to the public.
    Fair play to De Council. And, let’s hear it for historical fiction!

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