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Into the slippery unknown: ‘The Gospel of the Eels’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Patrik Svensson’s eloquent debut is a hymn to the elusiveness of eels and an ode to family

The common eel is as surprising and mysterious as any exotic deep-sea beastie. For thousands of years the best scientific minds have wrestled in vain with the shrouded riddle of its transformations and its cycles of life and death. Even today, after decades of intensive study driven by commercial fishing interests, much of our knowledge of eels is still based on educated guesswork.

We’re pretty sure, for instance, that eels are hatched in the Sargasso Sea, a vast oceanic gyre in the North Atlantic, because that’s where we find the greatest concentration of eel larvae. But no one has actually seen eels breeding there.

Indeed, it’s only recently, with the use of satellite tags, that scientists have managed to track the migration of these slipperiest of fish from the freshwater rivers and lakes of Europe and North America into the open ocean and toward the wild Sargasso. And yet, tantalisingly, no tracking devices have ever made it all the way to the breeding grounds.

In his immensely readable and engaging first book, Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson invites us to celebrate the elusiveness of eels and their refusal to be comprehended. The Gospel of the Eels (Picador) is a personal story about Svensson and his father, and a summary of the complicated history of eel research. But it’s also a compelling meditation on the intellectual and spiritual importance of mystery.

And the mystery of eels is an enduring one. Aristotle himself dissected a great many eels in a vain search for reproductive organs. Finding none – because they are very hard to find – the father of comparative anatomy and physiology concluded that eels must be spontaneously brought into existence by the combination of mud and rain.

Eels, we now know, have no visible sex organs until migrating back into the open ocean, when they become what are called silver eels. Incredibly, this was not discovered until the mid 20th century. Svensson quotes a letter from a German marine biologist, writing in 1879, which sums up the frustrations of 19th-century scientists:

To a person not acquainted with the circumstances of the case, it must seem astonishing, and it is certainly somewhat humiliating to men of science, that a fish which is commoner in many parts of the world than any other fish … which is daily seen at the market and on the table, has been able in spite of the powerful aid of modern science to shroud the manner of its propagation, its birth, and its death in darkness, which even to the present day not been completely dispelled.

One man of science brought low by the eel question was the young Sigmund Freud, who at the age of 19 had the unlikely ambition of becoming the first person to describe the testicles of a male eel. It was very much the hot problem of the time.

Svensson’s sketch of Freud’s brief career as a marine biologist is a small comic masterpiece. Just imagine Freud in a white coat and glasses, a sticky dead eel in one hand, looking through his microscope for the umpteenth time. And all he sees, like the last time and the time before that, is nothing but the lack of a male sex organ.

The way Svensson connects Freud’s youthful disappointments, his frustration with the empirical method of scientific inquiry, with his theories about repression and concealed wishes and motives in the twilight world of the unconscious, is a miracle of restraint and typical of Svensson’s light but effectual touch.

But eels do haunt the mind. They remain potent symbols – even after the secret of their reproduction has been demystified and rendered at least partly comprehensible – of the dark unrest of the spirit we feel when confronted with our own limited creatureliness.

The Gospel of the Eels opens with a galvanising quote from Seamus Heaney’s “A Lough Neagh Sequence”:

Later in the same fields
He stood at night when eels
Moved through the grass like hatched fears

Fears, perhaps, about our origins and the little distance we’ve come? We must all make do, after all, as Ernest Becker once wrote, with a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still has the gill marks to prove it.

And eels can also suggest the vulgar, greedy way that all life depends on death. Think, for example of that nauseating but compelling scene in Tin Drum (1959), by Günter Grass, the novel later turned into an Oscar-winning film, where the narrator, Oskar Matzerath, and his family watch a fisherman on a beach hauling in a rope.

Oskar stares in transfixed horror as a horse’s head emerges from the foaming waves. It lolls at the water’s edge with dead eyes staring as fat eels slither from its ears and mouth and neck. The grinning fisherman snatches at them and stuffs them into a potato sack while Oskar’s mother vomits and Oskar plays his little drum.

But why should eels, which, after all, have been a staple food for humans since time immemorial, be regarded as abject or grotesque? And why should they be associated with things dark and macabre? It can’t only be because they seem so fat and sleek and alive in the presence of death, because, well, so do big cats and any number of other animals. It is surely, as Svensson suggests, something to do with their serpentine incomprehensibility.

For Svensson, however, eels also have a deeply personal significance. As a child, he and his father fished for eels in the river behind his grandmother’s house. And from an early age he was impressed by the oddity and unpredictability of eels. He describes, for instance, an eel escaping from a bucket in his garage, hiding in the corner for six hours, and then springing to life when returned to the river.

Now, however, eels remind him of the gentleness and reticence of his father and of the special times they spent together early in the dark morning fishing at the edge of a steep bank. His father died at the age of 60 from an aggressive cancer related to years of work as a road paver. Svensson’s descriptions of both his childhood and his father’s final years have a serene compassion and tenderness that is hard to resist.

As well as being a reflection on family origins and fatherly role models, The Gospel of the Eels is – in its final chapters – also an examination of the challenges eels face as the seas become ever warmer and rivers ever more polluted. In recent decades, eel populations around the world have crashed. Indeed, the European eel is now considered critically endangered.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing eels is commercial fishing. Because no reliable way of breeding eels in captivity has been developed, commercial eel farms rely on stocking large quantities of glass or juvenile eels caught in the wild, which results in fewer and fewer eels reaching sexual maturity.

It should be pointed out that Svensson’s story chiefly concerns Anguilla anguilla, the European eel. Readers from the south-east of Australia will perhaps be more familiar with the shortfin eel, Anguilla australis, which has a similar lifecycle, although it breeds in the Coral Sea. It, too, however, is increasingly at risk, having recently been described as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

We should be grateful to have this English translation by Agnes Broomé, which is effortlessly clear, so soon after the book appeared in Swedish, although, given the international hype around this song of praise for the haunted and the shadowed, you can understand why publishers might have tried to hurry things along.

The Gospel of the Eels, in its unostentatious Nordic way, is a remarkably eloquent book about family and the problem of faith. Svensson is not against science or rationality and he admits that the obscurity of the eel has hampered conservation efforts. But his book reminds us of the importance of humility – and even a kind of reverence – in the face of what we don’t know about our world.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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