This week I’ve been volunteering at the Writers Fest here and I had the chance to see one of my favourite authors, Icelandic writer and lyricist Sjón. He’s written lyrics for Björk and I read his book From the Mouth of the Whale
about two years ago (edit: actually only last year, although I did borrow it from the library in December) and loved it. If I were to describe it, I would say it is unconventional and experimental. Set in fifteenth century Iceland, about Jónas “the Learned” Palmason, a naturalist and revolves around his exile due to his practices that have been condemned as sorcery and necromancy. Palmason is based on an actual person, Jon Gudmundsson, who is so obscure that it is very hard to find anything about him on the Internet. I originally wrote some brief thoughts about From the Mouth of the Whale on my other blog Z’s Cup of Tea:
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón: This was my first book to read in 2013, although I first came across it in December. I’m not sure how I found out about it, except that I was reading on the Internet. The author, Sjón, is also a poet and has written lyrics for Björk (one of my favourite singers and whom, I think I’m safe to say, I’ve been a lifelong fan of). Translated by Victoria Cribb, it is set in fifteenth century Iceland and the protagonist, Jónas “the Learned” Palmason, is a naturalist who has been banished to eastern Iceland for his practices (which local authorities condemn as sorcery and necromancy). The novel is mostly told through his recollections of various events from his life before exile, including what lead to him being exiled. Written in a stream of consciousness style, it flows like a current as it is allowed to wash over the reader – rather than fight with or against what is sometimes a challenging style to read. Through some research, I found out that Jónas the Learned is based on a real person, Jon Gudmundsson – who is so obscure that it is hard to find any information about him; he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page – and has close parallels, although what is fact and what is fiction seems to be blurred.
I was fascinated by the history in the book so much that I actually made a mind map of it. (I have it somewhere, and have to find it again.)
Sjón was not the only author present, he was joined by three other European authors (Herman Koch, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Maylis de Kerengal) and they talked about the state of cultural identity in the wake of globalization, among similar topics. Each author also gave a reading from their book; Sjón read from his book The Whispering Muse (which I have to read still). At the end of the talk and audience Q&A that followed, the authors signed their books.
My heart thumping in my chest, I got in line to have my book signed. I was near the back of the line, it shuffled slowly forward and with every slow step, closer and closer toward the table, I held myself close as I started to tremble with excitement and gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering. When it was my turn, I kept myself together enough that I could speak fluidly and told him how much I loved his writing, including his lyrics for Bjõrk, whom I mentioned I’ve listened to since I was a child. I asked him how he had heard of Jon Gudmundsson, mentioning how it’s hard to find anything about him on the Internet and also how I made a mind map, which I saw he was impressed by. (He said he is known in Iceland and that he read what was available and collected pieces as he found them, until he could write a story around them.) At this point, there was only one person behind me but I respect how little time authors truly have at these kinds of things; book signings aren’t opportune or appropriate times to have heart-to-heart chats, so I kept it brief. Our conversation, if it could be called that, probably lasted less than two minutes.
He gave the book back to me, signed, and I think I must have gripped it firmly as I left. Once I was a slight distance away, I opened it again and gazed at what he’d written. The ink, which I had perceived as green under the warm yellow light, now appeared blue. I stood as if in a dream, lightheaded and in a daze. I had been shy and near hesitating, torn between whether or not I should, until excitement took over and my realization that if I didn’t act I would immediately regret it forever. I’m glad I did.