The Book of Eels

by Patrick Svensson, 2019, translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broome 2020

Surprising that a book about eels would be so interesting, but it was! Every other chapter is his personal experience fishing for eels with his Dad in Sweden. I liked those chapters the best. He loved fishing for eels with his Dad. What a gift to have had a Dad like that. His Dad worked as a tar layer for roads in Sweden; he was very strong and worked very hard, but breathing in the hot tar for so many years eventually caused the cancer that killed him. His Dad loved to eat eel.

The other chapters gave historical and scientific information about eels. We know after 20 years of painstaking research by a Danish guy that the eels breed in the Sargasso Sea but we have never seen an eel, alive or dead, in the Sargasso Sea! The eels are dying out (we think) and we can’t breed them in captivity. The Japanese have tried.

This book was one of the books recommended by Fredrik Backman in his acknowledgements of the book, Anxious People.

I really liked this author and his dad. Here are some of the fun facts and interesting statements from this book:

So where did the silver eels go? And where did all the mysterious willow leaves come fro? Where was the eel’s birthplace That was what the twenty-seven-year-old Johannes Schmidt set out to find in the spring of 1904.

from page 62

Johannes Schmidt was from Denmark. It took him over 20 years to find what we think is where the eels breed and die. Like finding a needle in a haystack, but the haystack was the entire Atlantic Ocean and the needle is a tiny baby eel.

He told the true story of how an Indian named Tisquantum and eel saved the Pilgrims:

There was no apparent logic to his actions, and a person’s motives cannot always be explained by his backstory, but by all appearances, Tisquantum saved the imperiled English colonizers. One of the first things he did was gift them an armful of eels. After their very first meeting, Tisquantum went down to the river, and “at night, he came home with as many eels as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of,” noted one of the pilgrims in a diary later sent back to England…

In November 1621, a year after their arrival and around the date that has ever since, and because of the pilgrims’ survival, been called Thanksgiving, they wrote in their diaries about the amazing land they had found. They wrote about the grace that had, after all their tribulations, been extended to them and thanked the Lord for all the trees and plants and fruits surrounding them, for the animals and fish and fertile soil and, of course, for the eels they “effortlessly” fished out of the river in great quantities every night.

It would have made complete sense for the eel to have become an important figure in American mythology, a fat, shiny symbol of the promised land, the gift that sealed what was preordained.

from pages 103 and 104

He says he and his dad did not believe in God, but he writes things like this:

Jesus was the son of God, but also a human. Only by being both could he represent a link between the worldly and the divine and become the savior of humankind.

from page 131

He talks about Rachel Carson who wrote about eels in a way that made you identify with them:

But when Rachel Carson wrote about the eel, that was, nevertheless, what she did. She anthropomorphized it. She described the eel as a sentient creature with feelings, an animal with memory and reason, which could be tormented by the tribulations it was destined for or could enjoy the bright side of life. And she had her reasons for doing so. When the history of science is one day summed up, Rachel Carson will stand out as one of the people who contributed most to our understanding of not only the eel but also the vast and complex ecosystem to which it inevitably belongs.

from page 132

There are glass sponges that live for over 11,000 years! Eels live a long time – 50 years. They have 4 distinct life stages: born in the Sargasso Sea (we think) and as tiny, transparent eels like willow leaves, they travel towards the coast, turn into glass eels which are a delicacy, then become yellow eels that live in the rivers for up to 30 years, and sometime they decide to breed and return to the Sargasso Sea as silver eels, not needing any food for the rest of their lives. When they get to the Sargasso Sea, it is assumed they, they breed and die.

When we say we know the eel procreates in the Sargasso Sea, there are still some essential objections to that statement: (1) No human has ever seen two eels mate. (2) No one has ever seen a mature eel in the Sargasso Sea.

from page 167

No one has ever seen an eel in the Sargasso Sea.

from page 176

Another strange detail is, of course, that it’s not only living eels that have proved elusive in the Sargasso Sea. No one has ever spotted a dead one either, whether in the form of a corpse or as the victim of a larger predator.

from page 178

The Japanese eel is similar to the European eel but all of its life forms happen in the Pacific Ocean and move to rivers in Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan. They found the larvae “far out in the Pacific Ocean, just west of the Mariana Islands.” The Japanese have tried to farm eels but they refuse to live in captivity. The longest they have been able to keep larvae alive is 18 days; and that after working 30 years to come up with a meal they would eat. They have managed to get a very small percentage to grow to the glass eel stage, but barely any.

He watched an eel that was dead come back to life after putting it into a bucket. He writes about that:

“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. And I let it sway me, too. I decided that you find what you want to believe in when you need it. We needed the eel. The two of us wouldn’t have been the same without it.

It was only much later, when I read the Bible, that I realized that this is exactly how faith arises. Having faith is to approach the mystery, that which lies beyond language and perception. Faith requires you to give up part of your logic and rationality. Paul wrote as much in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Put differently, a believer must let go of intellectual thought, must let himself be convinced, not by rational argument or natural science or the truth that reveals itself under the microscope, but by feeling alone. “If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that me may become wise,” Paul wrote. Anyone who seeks faith must dare to beome a fool.

Only a fool can believe in miracles. There’s something both terrifying and tempting about it. When Jesus walks on water, his apostles, who are sitting in a boat, are frightened at first. They think he’s a ghost. But Jesus tells them: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear,” and Peter dares to step out onto the water to meet him. That first step, when Peter lifts his foot over the boat’s railing and puts it down on the water’s surface, is the beginning of everything. The familiar meets the unfamiliar. Something he thought he understood turns out to be something else entirely. And he chooses to believe it. When Jesus reaches the boat, the apostles all fall to their knees and say: “Truly, you are the son of God.”

…I’ve never been able to bring myself to believe in the miracles of any religion, but I can understand why someone would want to swap fear for conviction….

And the promise of the Christian faith, what awaits anyone brave enough to become a fool, is the biggest of all promises: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Jesus promises his followers eternal life, which is why the most important miracle is the resurrection. That Jesus dies and is raised is the heart of the Christian message. Without it, faith becomes meaningless. Faith can’t be only about this life; it has to transcend it. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

Only a fool would believe in the resurrection, but I’ve sometimes wished I were a fool, and I think Dad wished for the same thing. Because what is resurrection? If taken literally it means a person (or an eel) can die and then live again. But Paul also talks about something else in his letter to the Corinthians. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” he writes. Death is inevitable, but there are, according to Paul, ways to handle it. Further on, Paul talks about change, about how death isn’t an ending but rather a kind of metamorphosis: “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”

…You don’t have to believe the miracle to believe the meaning of the miracle. There are many ways to be a fool. And you don’t have to believe in the Gospel (or the eel) in a literal sense to believe what is at the heart of their message: Those who die stay with us in some form.

Nana believed in God, but Dad and I didn’t. That being said, much later, when Nana was dying, I sat by her side and she cried and said, “I will always be with you.” And I obviously believed her. I didn’t need to believe in God to believe that.

And that is, at the end of the day, what Jesus promises his followers. “I am with you always, to the close of the age,” he says when he reveals himself to his apostles, three days after his death.

And that is, of course, what we hope for when we believe. Whether in God or an eel.

from pages 193-196

It turns out the eel is going extinct. It’s really hard for scientists to know for certain, but using the number of glass eels migrating up rivers, they have determined, “the situation today is more or less catastrophic.”

Excellent author, educational book.