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New book by Patrik Svensson: The sea as an eternity metaphor

A strange land creature with insatiable curiosity: In ten lucid essays, Patrik Svensson illuminates man’s relationship to the sea.

Sea, waves and horizon

The sea as a metaphor for eternity Photo: Chrome Orange/imago

Published a few years ago “Gospel of the Eels” an extraordinary non-fiction bookin which the Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson intertwined the story of the nature and development of the eel with his own family history: it was also about the author’s father.

Now he has presented a kind of sequel in which he expands the focus of the content and also lovingly focuses on another family member while writing. “The Chronicler of the Seas” is dedicated to his mother. And although the book is divided into chapters that are clearly thematically different, at the end you have the feeling that a broad arc has been very successfully made here.

“Den lodande människan” / “the piloting person” is the original title of the book, in which, implicitly and untranslatably, the “suffering person” (“den lidande människan”) also resonates. Above all, this searching person, as the chapter of the same name tells us, was always plagued by his curiosity.

Knots and sinkers

For shipping, however, it was always simply necessary to know how much water was under the keel. Svensson clearly explains how the depth of water was initially measured with rods, then the sinker was invented (measuring speed on the water in “knots” is also related to this) and from there the methods of ocean exploration became increasingly complex.

Another chapter is dedicated to the deepest part of the sea: the Challenger Deep, whose bottom was reached at a depth of 10,916 meters by Jaqcues Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960 with a self-made diving capsule. Only two people were down here after them; one of them the film director James Cameron.

In addition to curiosity and thirst for knowledge, which always drive people into the unknown, Svensson sheds light on the fatal human urge to master everything that has been discovered. He tells the story of the first circumnavigation of the world led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan in the 16th century largely from the perspective of a Malay slave who Magellan took with him on the great journey as an interpreter.

Mastery of nature

The history of whaling is also disturbing. “You wanted to kill it because you could, not because you had to,” it is said about the sperm whale. “The benefit that the sperm whale had for humans seems to be more of an afterthought, as if the goal preceded the meaning.” There are still around 36,000 sperm whales worldwide today – an estimated quarter of the population that existed before humans began , to specifically hunt the largest marine mammal. The chapter is titled “The Greatest Predator”; and that doesn’t mean the whale.

Patrik Svensson shows, among other things, that the desire for discovery and research can also go hand in hand with a deep connection to nature with a portrait of the self-taught Scottish naturalist Robert Dick, who lived in the 19th century and made a living as a baker.

The essay in the title, “The Chronicler of the Seas,” is about the American biologist Rachel Carson, who not only set new standards in nature writing with her books about the sea, but also wrote a kind of founding manifesto of the eco-movement with “The Silent Spring.”

Man-made litter

There is no chapter on man-made marine litter in Svensson’s book. A single plastic bag at the most symbolically effective point in the volume is enough to illustrate the urgency of this problem, which otherwise would not really find a thematic place in the intellectual arc that the book covers.

In the entirety of all the essays, no matter how factual and fact-rich they are in detail, an image of the sea emerges as a metaphor for being or eternity. Man, on the other hand, presents the image of a strange land creature that often acts very badly against everything else that crawls, runs and swims, but is nevertheless very astonishing in its great, insatiable curiosity about everything unknown.

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