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The Gospel of Eels

I never thought that my favourite book for 2020 would be a book about eels, but it is—The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson, translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé. In my whole life I have never given more than a passing thought to eels, yet I was utterly entranced by this book about the world’s most enigmatic fish—enigmatic because even now we don’t know everything about its life cycle. Johannes Schmidt, a 20th century scientist, spent two decades of his life determining that the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, reproduces in the Sargasso Sea. The larvae, with bodies like willow leaves, float away on the Gulf Stream towards the coasts of Europe. Here they turn into the small glass eels which travel up brooks or rivers and are then transformed into yellow eels. Many years later they become silver eels and set off towards the Sargasso Sea, developing reproductive organs on the way. No one has yet found a mature eel in the Sargasso Sea, only the leaf-like larvae. Aristotle thought eels originated from mud and water. Pliny the Elder thought eels broke off bits of their bodies on rocks, where the pieces turned into new eels.

Sigmund Freud began his illustrious career as a dissectionist trying to find eel generative organs—a hopeless quest which Svensson illustrates with a comical sketch of Freud as marine biologist. Interesting as all this is, the most beguiling parts of the book are the chapters describing Svensson’s close bond with his father and their early morning eel-catching episodes, especially the arcane methods they used for trapping eels. As you might expect, eel numbers are dramatically declining, and attempts to produce eels commercially, especially by the Japanese, have had no success. Svensson’s book is not quite a memoir, not quite an ecological treatise, but a mixture of both, with some meditations from the author on themes like resurrection, based on how ‘dead’ eels revive when placed in rivers. The book begins with a quote from Seamus Heaney: ‘Later in the same fields/He stood at night when eels/moved through the grass like hatched fears.’ And Svensson quotes freely from Waterland, Graham Swift’s first novel, with its many references to eels. This book is a masterpiece for which one reading is manifestly not enough.

It is always a joy when a new Ancient Rome mystery by Lindsey Davis appears, and The Grove of the Caesars is a bottler! I have long been a Falco fan, and Flavia Albia, a street kid adopted by Falco and wife Helena when they were on a job in Londinium, has now taken Falco’s place as a very smart investigatrix into the crimes that explode into her life. Flavia’s husband tells her when he leaves on family business not go to Caesars’ Grove, so of course she does—and finds some papyrus scrolls which provide the novel’s subplot. The main plot hinges on a birthday party in the Grove where a woman goes missing, while on the same night two dancing-boy slaves wished on Flavia’s family by Emperor Domitian also disappear, leading Flavia to discover that a serial killer has been busy in the Grove for years, right under the eyes of the lazy and corrupt cops of the Seventh Vigiles. Davis is brilliant at immersing the reader in Roman life while making sharp social comments about slavery and women’s place in Roman society. Her wit sparkles and I always get a kick out of reading her Cast of Characters. If you haven’t yet come across Falco or Flavia Albia The Grove of the Caesars would be a good place to start.

I liked very much The Trials of Portnoy by Patrick Mullins. When I was young, almost every book that anyone wanted to read seemed to be banned: Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Catcher in the Rye, even Childbirth Without Pain. When Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint was published, Don Chipp, the Minister for Banning Books, couldn’t wait to banish it from our shores, lest any innocent Aussie be depraved and corrupted by such filth. Then along came Portnoy’s champion, John Michie, the head of Penguin Australia, who printed and sold a hundred thousand copies, telling Mr Chipp (who would later head the Australian Democrats) to take him to court if he must. This Mr Chipp did, telling John Michie that he would see him in gaol. Luminaries like Patrick White and James Macauley appeared in court arguing for the literary qualities of the book. When Patrick White was asked what he knew about English literature, he replied, ‘Well, I have been reading it all my life.’ Penguin Australia were fined $100 plus $4.50 in court costs, so there was no gaol for Michie this time. There were, however, more prosecutions—all great publicity for the novel. A Communist bookshop in Perth made enough money out of Portnoy to renovate its premises. Another champion, Bill (later Sir William) Deane, acted for Penguin at the Sydney trial. I laughed my head off at many incidents in this book and the ‘Raskolnikov moment’ made me fall off my chair. Do read this entertaining book, it will cheer you up no end.

If you want a beautiful book to give to a very dear friend, have a look at Ellis Rowan: A Life in Pictures by Christine Morton-Evans. Rowan’s life story (1848–1922) is fascinating: at age 70, for instance, she spent a considerable time in the wilds of New Guinea searching for botanical specimens.  Her flower paintings which Morton-Evans uses to illustrate this biography are to die for!   Sonia