This month, Nirica Srinivasan reviews Patrik Svensson’s The Gospel of the Eels, a unique natural science memoir, and buy it on our online bookstore.
If you had asked me last week to name a single fact about eels, I would have come up short. “Sea snakes” is generally how I thought of them. I knew some eels are capable of generating electric shocks when in danger, and are therefore terrifying. With that, I would have exhausted my knowledge about eels entirely.
The Gospel Of The Eels won me over with how much it taught me about this fascinating fish, but most strikingly for me, how very much it left unexplored — that it had to leave unexplored. Because the story of the eel is one shrouded in mystery. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla — not the electric kind) is born in the Sargasso sea as a tiny willow leaf-shaped larva. It travels to the coasts of Europe, becoming a glass eel. And at some point, at an age that seems to differ from eel to eel, it transforms into the yellow eel. It begins to make its way back to where it came from, the Sargasso sea, where it breeds — and dies. But the stages of the eel’s life in the Sargasso Sea, its beginning and its end, have never been observed.
This book by Patrik Svensson is translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé, and combines a focussed study of the eel with personal memoir. Svensson’s interest with eels begins with his late father’s obsession with eel-hunting, an exercise that shaped Svensson’s own adolescence. He recounts the expeditions to the stream near his father’s childhood home, armed with bait and hooks. He recalls the feeling of holding an eel between his hands and looking into its dark eyes.
Interspersed with his memories of his father, Svensson takes us through the natural history of the eel — the first discovery of it in Sargasso sea, the first discovery of the yellow eel. He examines other impacts of the eel, too: the cultural aspect of eel-fishing in Sweden, the importance of eel as food for the first pilgrims in America. It seems like everyone from Aristotle to Freud to Rachel Carson — familiar, famous names — were, at some point of time, fascinated by the eel, and its mysteries.
In alternating chapters, Svensson’s exploration of the mysteries of the eel run parallel to the mystery of his late father. The Gospel of the Eels is not really like a science lesson. Instead, it’s the story of a lifetime fascination with something that refuses to be pinned down. Even when recounting the natural history of the eel and the world’s growing understanding of it, Svensson brings a distinctly human element to the book. He says, here are the facts. But more movingly, it’s what those facts mean to him, and to his understanding of his relationship with his father, that bring this book alive.
‘They’re odd, eels,’ Dad would say. And he always seemed mildly delighted when he said it. As though he needed the mystery. As though it filled some kind of emptiness in him.
Svensson’s eel is a magical thing. It lives in the darkest depths of water. It doesn’t find itself forefronted in history, perhaps because of its perception as snake-like. It seems to reach its final stage of life at an arbitrary age — recorded ages of yellow eels range from eight to fifty seven. Svensson asks: how does a creature like that experience time? How does it know when it’s time to head back home, and how does it know exactly where to go? Through the book, he wonders: how is an eel like a person?
Ultimately, most of these questions don’t have answers. They may never will, with the current population of European eels in sharp decline. Svensson’s book is as much about faith and his personal interactions with the eel, as it is about the eel’s past and future. The eel confuses and confounds Svensson and decades of scientists, while holding its secrets close to its heart. As Svensson grapples with the father he tried to know and the eels he tries to learn about, he seems content to just let the mystery be. And that is fine by me.