“I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters.”
WHAT: “Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature.”
WHO: Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. Ålevangeliet (The Gospel of Eels) is his first book.
Because it’s a remarkable animal. Just think about the life cycle of an eel. They’re born in The Sargasso Sea, in the Western part of The Atlantic Ocean. They drift with the currents all the way to Europe. They go through metamorphoses, they become glass eels and then yellow eels. They find their place to live in freshwater and then they stay there. They live a lonely, quiet passive life at the same place for 20, 30 or 50 years. When suddenly they get this urge to return to the place they came from. They become silver eels. They stop eating and only now develop their sexual organs, and they swim all the way back to the Sargasso Sea, where they disappear down in the depths to breed and then die. That’s a remarkable story in itself. But the eel has also captured me because of the scientific history.
There are so many prominent scientists who have tried to understand the eel, and so many things we still don’t really know about it. I’m first of all interested in telling stories and I think that natural science is full of great stories if you just know where, and how, to look for them. And this is especially true about the eel. I found out that if you don’t just ask the question “What do we know about the eel?” but also “How do we know it?”, then you find all those great stories and interesting characters, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud to Rachel Carson. In that way, the story of the eel is also the story of remarkable people making remarkable efforts in the name of science. It’s the story of one of human nature’s most enduring urges, the urge to understand life around us, to understand how things work, and in the end where we ourself belong in everything.
As well as being a natural history, Ålevangeliet, is a deeply personal narrative – a chronicle of your memories fishing for eels with your father and of that bond between you. When did you first think about writing this story, making this pilgrimage into your past, and when did you know for certain that you would complete it?
I wanted to write about my own experience of the eel from the beginning, mostly to try to come closer to the subject in a way. I fished for eels with my father during my whole childhood. Late summer nights down by the stream, under the shadows of the trees. And I have very strong and vivid memories from that place and from those nights. That was also where my father told me about all the mysteries surrounding the eel, and about the Sargasso sea where all the eels came from, this almost fairytale place far from anything I could even imagine.
A life long fascination started right there. And when later in life I learned that there actually is a term, “the eel question”, that’s been part of the scientific history for ages, it was as if my own story, and my own origin, connected to something much larger. That was also when the two separate stories in the book – the scientific history of the eel and my own story about my father and the place I came from – started to connect, they reflected each other in some way, and I understood that they both had to be part of the story.
There are several recipes for eel mentioned in the text. Which is your go-to family favourite and what’s the recipe?
I don’t eat eel. That’s a principle. I don’t think you should hunt and eat endangered animals.
European eels, Anguilla Anguilla, are listed as critically endangered. Does this mean we should all stop catching and eating them? What’s the best ethical substitute for eel meat?
Yes, we should all stop eating eel. The fishing is probably actually not the biggest problem for the eel. They are threatened by a lot of different factors, from toxins to climate change to power plants. But as I said, I don’t think you should eat endangered species.
There are some big-name scientists featured in the book, Aristotle, Freud (who spent a surprising amount of his early life dissecting male eels in the hope of finding their testes), Darwin, and Rachel Carson. If you could ask any of them any one thing, what would it be?
I’m very inspired by Rachel Carson. Her ability to write about nature and animals in a very scientific way, based on deep knowledge and understanding, but also with a sense of wonder for natures creations, and with the language of a poet almost. I don’t know what I would ask her, I would just love to hear her talk. I think she was a kind of voice that we really could need today.
Ålevangeliet has been translated into 33 languages and counting. What is your advice to an author whose work is about to be translated? Get involved or leave it be? Are there particular passages you always want to be treated with particular care?
I think it’s very good if you can have a dialogue with the translator. There’s always lots of references, meanings, metaphors, that can easily get lost in translation. But in the end, you also have to let go, especially of course if it’s a language you don’t understand. All the translators I have met have been extremely professional and devoted. At some point, you just have to put your trust in them.
How has the book and its message been received in those countries most resistant to sustainable fishing quotas and practices?
I have only met readers who have shown a great understanding of how serious the situation is for the eel. The official assessment from IUCN and others is that the population of the European eel has gone down more than 95 per cent since the 1970’s and it’s now listed as critically endangered. That’s really all that has to be said to understand that we can’t continue to threat the eel, and the ocean, the way we have. I also use to talk a lot about the bigger issue here, the mass extinction of species, scientists who believe that the number of species on earth could be halved in only a hundred years. That’s a dramatic and extremely urgent problem that I think people only now are starting to fully understand.
Would you want to be reincarnated as an eel? Which part of the lifecycle would you most enjoy?
No, I would not. But if I had to I guess I would be very curious about the migration of the silver eel. The travel back to the Sargasso Sea, disappearing in the depth where they supposedly breed and die. No man has ever seen eels breed, no one has even seen an eel in the Sargasso Sea, neither living or dead. That’s one of the mysteries that still remains of the eel.
The book has been an incredible success. When Netflix comes calling which actor will you want to play your father?
Haha, well isn’t the more interesting question who would play the eel? But you know what, the perfect actor for my father would actually be Stellan Skarsgård. He’s from the same area of Sweden as me, and he was also my father’s favourite actor.
What are you currently working on?
When it comes to that question I’m afraid I’m as secretive as an eel.