Up north in Norway the Lofoten archipelago rear out of the Atlantic, towering mighty from the deep sea. Norwegian journalist Morten Strøksnes and his artist friend Hugo Aasjord recount their sporadic, year-long quest to catch a huge creature, a Greenland shark.
“Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Dinghy in a Big Ocean,” that’s the long title of the book translated from the Norwegian original, titled “The Book of the Ocean”. The English title is long, but more describing. Immediately you get the image of adventure, isolation and challenges. Being in a rubber boat on the deep cold ocean, with nothing but a fishing rod hunting a Greenland shark.
A Greenland shark lives for centuries and can grow to more than 20 feet long preying on sleeping seals at enormous depths. Many specimens are blind from eye-worm, not least the infamous Greenland Shark, the oldest vertebrae in the world, clocked in at 400 years old.
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The beast’s eyes glow luminous green, attracting finger-long parasitic worms that hang from its eyeballs.
Of the Lofoten peaks, the Norwegian painter Christian Krogh wrote: “The purest of the pure, the coldest of the cold, the grandest imaginable, altars to the God of solitude… how difficult to paint this! To convey the elevation, the grandeur and nature’s inexorable, merciless calm and indifference.”
Morten Strøksnes has written a wonderful reflection on his adventures with his friend Hugo. Both are fascinated by the mysteries of the sea, which the shark embodies. Morten and Hugo pass long days with nary a strike while they weather storms and view stunning scenery in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago, vividly rendered by Strøksnes’s prose.
Mostly, they sit in a boat, talking little, leaving Strøksnes to ruminate whimsically on sharks, sea life, evolution, the culture and history of Norwegian fishing communities and the work of the 16th-century bishop Olaus Magnus, who wrote “a guide to the Northern Peoples” and produced a map illustrated with sea monsters.
(“The sun isn’t visible to us, but it casts its light around and in between the rain… like gigantic spotlights slowly sweeping across the surface of the water.”) The book follows the activities of the author and Hugo over four seasons of a year as they try to bring up the Greenland Shark from the depths.
Even If the book’s associative structure occasionally feels like a saunter through pages of Wikipedia, there is a trove of interest here, too. The author ponders everything related to the ocean, including frolicking orca pods and sperm whales, ancient disquisitions on maritime monsters, flinty islanders who live off the sea, and the close, testy relationships between fishing friends.
Isolation was a problem for Norwegian lighthouse keepers; the Norwegian Lighthouse Association had a mobile book collection it circulated among them to stop them going mad. Strøksnes’s erudition, salty humor, and unfussy prose yield a fresh, engrossing natural history.
The book isn’t actually a book about a shark hunt. It encompasses it, but it also encompasses a meandering through various reminiscences, events and subject-matter. Strøksnes’s sidelong approach to science is beguiling. The book’s beauty, undemanding science and soothing, musing qualities made the book a bestseller in Norway. Shark Drunk was awarded five prizes in Norway when it was first published, including the prestigious Brage Prize for non-fiction. Now it has been translated into English and several other languages.
After studying in Oslo and Cambridge, Strøksnes embarked on a career as a journalist. He has published eight critically acclaimed books of reportage, essays and literary non-fiction.
Fishy Tales from Award-winning Norwegian Author, written by Tor Kjolberg