Why a ‘Strange and Nerdy’ Book About Eels Is Making Waves

MALMO, Sweden — In the 1980s, American scientists devised an experiment that they were convinced would solve the mystery of how eels reproduce.

They took 100 females, injected them with hormones to induce sexual maturity, and prepared to bring them to the Sargasso Sea, that evocative patch of the Atlantic Ocean that begins some 300 miles off the eastern coast of the U.S. and is known to be where European and American eels go to spawn. There, the scientists planned to set the females in cages attached to buoys intended to function as lures that would, essentially, bring all the boys to the yard.

Yet 95 of the eels died before they reached the sea. The remaining five, put in cages and attached to buoys as planned, disappeared along with the contraptions that housed them.

Odd tales like that compelled Patrik Svensson to write “The Book of Eels.” A combination of natural history, memoir and metaphysical musing, the book, which comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, is a debut for the 47-year-old journalist. It is already a best seller in his native Sweden, where it won the August Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award.

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“He takes scientific mysteries and makes them part of a lived experience; a story between father and son that people can relate to,” Emi-Simone Zawall, a book critic for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and a former juror for the August Prize, said in a phone interview. “But I think the reason for [the book’s] success is that he combines them with a level of literary craftsmanship that is quite rare.”

No one is more surprised by that success than its author. “It’s a very strange and nerdy book,” Svensson said in an interview this month in Malmo. A culture reporter who reviews books and films, he grew up in a rural area north of the city where his decision to go to university — to say nothing of his interest in the arts — was difficult for his father, who worked as a road paver, to understand.

But father and son connected over eels, and it was from his dad’s stories that the younger Svensson became fascinated by the animal. The eel’s biology has captivated and baffled some of the West’s greatest minds, from Aristotle to Freud (who spent a postgraduate research gig in a futile quest to locate the fish’s testes, a failure that, as Svensson suggests, may have given the future father of psychoanalysis some ideas about genital absence). The Danish marine biologist Johanne Schmidt, who was obsessed with the eel, spent 20 years establishing its origins in the Sargasso.

It wasn’t until his father’s death from cancer, however, that Svensson decided to try his own hand at researching the creature. “I wouldn’t have written the book if my father hadn’t died,” he said. “Yes, it is a book about science and science history. But it’s also a way for me to try to write my way back to my origin, to my own Sargasso Sea.” In “The Book of Eels,” the younger Svensson’s memories of their nighttime fishing trips — the moonlit stillness giving way to a sudden thrash of slime — are lyrically recalled, and alternate with the natural history chapters.

Svensson’s insecurities surrounding his working-class background — evident, for example, in a passage in which he describes his boyhood envy for the superior fishing grounds of a local fishing club, “with their expensive fly fishing rods and their ridiculous little hats” — partly explain why he twined his past with the eel’s. “I had the feeling my story, and my family’s story, is not something to write books about,” he said. “The eels gave me something to hide behind.”

Credit…Julia Lindemalm

It helped that the eels themselves have kept so much hidden. As he wrote, Svensson found his book’s two stories coming together in strange ways. He would recall a willow that grew the bank of the stream where he and his father fished, for example, then discover that scientists describe the eel larva as shaped like a willow leaf. And much like an eel, his father turned out to have some ancestral secrets of his own.

In recent years, eels have become a flash point in southern Sweden. Although there is a long tradition of fishing them, the catch is strictly regulated, and the species, now endangered, has become a focus for environmental activists. With the exception of one his mother won in a Christmas lottery a few years back, Svensson no longer eats the fish as a matter of principle. But it is a tribute to the sensitivity with which he presents both the local culture and the eels’ plight that both fishermen and conservationists have praised the book.

In his quiet, studied way, Svensson is thrilled that readers have embraced his efforts to blend popular science with literary memoir. But more than anything, he believes they are responding to the eels’ own unknowable nature.

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