Norwegians are an inscrutable bunch. I’ve got colleagues from up there and, let me tell you, they are a constant source of wonder. Amongst many things, they’ll think nothing of saying things such as “Because you haven’t asked for this thing, you’re not gonna get it” to a customer who has paid millions for our services, or “Stop being so English” if I ever dare uttering nonsense such as “I see your point” or “I appreciate your point of view” within their earshot. They’re the kind of guys who will call a treacherous shoal Skitenflesa (shit rock) or a village Å because, well, why the hell not.
Brutally honest, deadpan as a 1960s Bond villain and seriously funny, the Norwegians have given the world many things – think salted liquorice shaped like little fish, badass polar explorers and folks who would share a sleeping bag for two years before deciding to get on first-name terms – and a book called Shark Drunk (subtitle: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean) by the awesomely-named Morten Strøksnes.
Shark Drunk – original name Havbuka, Ocean Book according to Google Translate – wouldn’t have worked at all had it been written by anyone other than a Norse. No one but the son (or daughter, it’s 2020 so let’s not be sexists, shall we?) of that beautiful country could’ve kicked it all off with these immortal lines: “Three and a half billion years. That’s the time it took from the moment the first primitive life-forms developed in the sea until Hugo Aasjord phoned me one Saturday night in July”. Read it in the soft accent of a Norwegian, with their quiet seriousness and those A’s that sound like O’s, and tell me if this isn’t a hell of a hook. Pun intended.
Throughout the book I kept on hearing echoes of Hemingway, and not because his spirit is haunting my flat. There’s a lot of The Old Man and the Sea in here, for Shark Drunk is the story of two men and their quest to land an elusive fish, though this isn’t the Caribbean and the prized prey isn’t a marlin. Instead it’s a fjord in the Lofoten archipelago and the fish is a big, mysterious piece of business called Greenland shark: five meters long, blind, capable of living for centuries, with skin that is exported as sandpaper and meat so toxic that can temporarily paralyze dogs and give men a bender to remember. Even the narrative style reminds me of Hemingway: big, broad brush strokes painting pictures that are vivid but at the same time manage to leave a lot to the imagination, a matter-of-factness where every word seems to be chosen very carefully. This is a book written by people who don’t speak a lot but, when they do, carry a lot of meaning.
I opened Shark Drunk expecting a story on men versus nature, on fishing in the open ocean out of a small boat, and I got all that. But there’s so much more, a lot more. There’s history, there’s science, there’s the story of Hugo and Mette and their quest to put the crumbling Aasjord station back onto the centre-stage of life in Skrova island. There’s the deep-rooted love for a place, the Vestfjord, its people and its culture and some exquisitely quirky forays into the depths of the Norwegian language (who would have ever guessed that the local dialect has 30 words to define winds blowing from the west, or that sjybårturn defines the sound of water lapping against the shore on a warm summer night?). And, there and again, there are pearls of these guys’ trademark Nordic honesty, such as “A man on a mall windswept island off Vestlandet also proved that Forbes was full of shit”. Because you know he was.
What is this book, then? A kaleidoscope. At its core, it’s a quest; the refreshingly démodé act of hunting an animal, of casting a line instead of heading off to the fish aisle at Lidl. But it’s also an adventure book, a travel story, a history treatise, a science publication. It’s serious, it’s deadpan, it’s humorous, it’s thoughtful and often even poetic. It’s soon to be saying this, but I firmly believe that Shark Drunk has all the markings of a modern-day classic.