Wan­der­ing through a wide di­gres­sive sea

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew Hol­gate

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

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