Wandering through a wide digressive sea
The Greenland shark, the subject of this eccentric-seeming book by Norwegian journalist Morten Stroksnes, is one of the world’s most sinister and mysterious creatures. Growing up to 7.3m long, weighing up to 1130kg, this monster of the deep, which patrols the icy waters of the Arctic Circle and beyond, is the planet’s largest flesh-eating shark.
Half blind because of parasites, living up to 400 or 500 years, and rising only occasionally from the depths, the creature is toxic in almost every respect, its flesh so poisonous it can induce severe intoxication and death, its skin so abrasive that it used to be exported to Germany as sandpaper.
So voracious is the Greenland shark that, even harpooned and hung upside down halfdead on a whaling ship, it has been known to continue gorging itself on any meat within easy reach of its giant prehistoric jaws.
Catching such an animal “from a tiny rubber dinghy”, then, as Stroksnes and his friend Hugo Aasjord propose at the outset of Shark Drunk, may seem a foolhardy venture.
But Hugo, an artist who lives inside the Arc- tic Circle and whose seafaring family has fished the waters of Norway’s Lofoten archipelago for generations, is made of stern stuff. Weaving together stories about the shark and its fearsome reputation over dinner one night, he persuades our narrator to join him in a search for the beast, using nothing but a motorised dinghy and “1300ft of the best-quality nylon line”.
What follows, in a discursive ramble that owes much to WG Sebald, is the shaggiest of all shaggy-dog stories.
Stroksnes, who lives most of the year in the south, fancies himself as something of a polymath and philosopher, and much of the book is taken up with digressions as the two, hopping from one season to the next, watch their line bob in the water or wait for the frequent storms to abate so they can venture out to sea.
Some of this is fascinating. The book, like Norway’s coastal culture, is drenched in sea lore and learning, and Stroksnes is happy to regale us with local arcana (much of it, one suspects, wrung from Hugo). There are words used by coastal Norwegians that no one else could dream of: hogginga, for instance, the moment when “the currents begin to slow 72 hours after a full moon or a new moon”; or sjybarturn, “the sound of the ocean when heard through a bedroom window on a mild summer night”.
Warming to his theme, Stroksnes discusses the local cod festival, where children parade in the street dressed as fish; ponders the Green- land shark’s mysterious ability to catch much swifter seals (which often sleep on the seabed); praises the qualities of shark oil as paint (some local houses have lasted 50 years on one series of coats); and discusses local delicacies: canned thigh of cormorant, fillet of otter.
Stroksnes also brings a suitable sense of awe to his discussions of the oceans and their mysteries: “More people have gone up into space than into the vast ocean depths.”
But, as with many hopeful polymaths, Stroksnes simply cannot stop himself regurgitating facts as we journey through the seasons with him, and the flow of digressions begins to develop a wearisome, deadening momentum. Looking at the stars, he regales us with reference-book asides about the possibility of life on other planets. A few pages later, it’s the turn of Norway’s lighthouses.
All this might be forgivable if Stroksnes could convince the reader of any profound emotional engagement with the landscape through which he is travelling. But the language is plain, the emotions often plainer, and far too often enumeration stands in for evaluation and appreciation. Even his discussion of pollution grates when one considers why it is that Stroksnes and Hugo have decided to kill this fish.
No amount of Rimbaud and Melville quotations will cloak all this. By Shark Drunk’s end, one is thankful it’s only a book that one is trapped inside with the author, not a boat. Times. is literary editor of The Sunday