Book of Eels

“The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World,” by Patrik Svensson. Ecco, 2020. 256 pages, $28.99.

Seldom does an author go into such great detail about a creature that prefers to lead a secretive life in the abysmal depths of the ocean.

Who would expect an arts and culture journalist from Denmark to devote his time to seriously study the American and European eel?

In “The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World,” Patrik Svensson offers us a treasure trove of information about eels. So little is still known about these fish, but Svensson has done his utmost to elevate the status of the eel.

Through his research of folklore, scientific blunders and discoveries, and comparative human and marine life observations, Svensson somehow convinces us to be more respectful of the eel.

It seems as if history has misunderstood the eel. Historical accounts have not been all that kind to the eel, which had been labeled a “demon,” “sorcerer” and “monster.” At one point, the eel had been associated with the poor. Symbolically and in early literature, it was portrayed as a slimy organism likened to the snake. It represented sexual desire, guilt and repression, evil and death. Most people didn’t want anything to do with eels. They regarded them as bad omens, something to loathe, fear and distrust.

Svensson’s curiosity about eels was piqued as a child when at night his father taught him how to catch them. The method was old-fashioned, stringing a host of worms on a line with a sinker. They would select several places to drop the lines into the dark, murky waters. It often was a waiting game. They would return the next day only to be disappointed to discover that the eels had outwitted them. The lines had been severed. Occasionally, luck would prevail, and they would bring up huge, squirming eels with eyes as black as coals.

Svensson wasn’t the only one who developed a curiosity about these creatures. In fact, curiosity frequently turned into an obsession.

Theories regarding the mystery behind whether there were eels of the same sex or separate genders, their mating habits, birth, migration patterns and long life were scrupulously studied by Aristotle, the Egyptians and countless scientists.

Even Sigmund Freud got into the act, dissecting eel after eel in the attempt to locate the male sexual organs. This proves an intriguing part of Svensson’s book in that Freud usually had been very much associated with psychoanalysis. It turns out that Freud was infatuated with the natural sciences, particularly marine biology. It wasn’t until years later that those in the psychiatric field realized that Freud had been forming a so-called basis for “penis envy,” thus leading to Freud’s own frustration (which he himself defined as “failure”) to successfully locate an eel’s testis.

And Svensson further amazes us with stories of glass, yellow and silver eels that can prolong death. An eel that doesn’t contract illness can live for up to 50 years in one place. Swedish eels have made it past 80 years in captivity. In one chapter, Svensson writes about a legend that became reality when an eel was tossed into a well. Centuries later, when people checked to see if it was still alive, they were absolutely astounded. It continued to thrive.

One thing about eels that Svensson doesn’t find appealing is their taste. No matter if his mother fried or boiled the chopped eels, coated them with butter and added spices, he could never quite swallow the fatty texture. On the other hand, his father devoured them as if they were delicious filet mignons.

Svensson encourages us to feel sympathy for eels. Today, they struggle with disease, pollution and additional environmental factors. They are susceptible to the herpes virus, Anguillae, a disease first discovered with Japanese eels in captivity. This disease is spreading to wild eels in Europe.

Being sensitive creatures, they also can catch the parasite Anguillicoloides crassus, a nematode, which is a kind of roundworm, that attacks the eel’s swimming bladder.

Overall, “The Book of Eels” is unique, unlike anything I have ever read. Through Svensson’s writings, I learned more about eels than if I were to enroll in any college course about the subject. Many questions still remain about the eel: How does it propagate? Why can it live for so long? How do they know when to return to their birth place? These questions and extensive curiosity are likely to keep Svensson up on many a night, myself included.

Carol A. Wright is a K-State graduate and freelance writer residing in Winfield.

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