The Norwegian American
I admit that I was disappointed, even a little frustrated, when I first learned that the title for the English translation of Morton Strøksnes’ Brage Prize-winning book Havboka (The Ocean Book) was going to be Shark Drunk. “Shark drunk?” I thought. “That is a hokey name for such an elegant and surprising book.”
I had read the book in Norwegian the year before, not knowing entirely what to expect, especially with such a peculiar subtitle. What I—and, clearly, Strøksnes—found was much more than merely the challenge of fishing for a giant shark. Rather, the book is a captivating meditation on the role that the sea and its almost endless mysteries have played in the human cultural imagination over the centuries, especially in the farthest north.
“The Ocean Book,” indeed, seems a much more accurate description of its content than “Shark Drunk.” But, in the end, there is good reason to call the book Shark Drunk. This English title refers to the alleged subject of the book: the ancient and elusive Greenland shark, which prowls the dark and frigid waters of the world’s northernmost seas.
The meat of the Greenland shark is toxic, and without proper preparation, eating it leads to symptoms that resemble severe drunkenness—hence “shark drunk.” In Iceland, the meat is buried for two to three months to ferment, after which it is dried and served as a delicacy, alongside a customary (and arguably necessary!) shot of brennevin.
But the title also plays on the year-long near-obsessive commitment that Strøksnes, as narrator, and his companion, Hugo Aasjord, make to catching a Greenland shark in the Vestfjord off of Lofoten: they are drunk on the possibility. OK, “Shark drunk” isn’t so bad a title after all.
What’s most compelling about the book, though, is that it’s about much more than the possibility of pulling one of these shadowy monsters up from their little-known world of utter darkness (their eyes are infamously plagued by a parasitic crustacean, leaving most Greenland sharks blind—not that they have much use for them down there). Strøksnes becomes almost equally possessed by the idea of the sea, the mystical effects it has had on cultural and natural history. He weaves into his narrative everything from the evolution of sharks to the travails of literary seafarers from Odysseus to Captain Ahab to the monstrous sea creatures that patrolled the unknown edges of historical maps to the superstitions of Lofoten’s fisherpeoples, both long ago and today. There is even an extensive meditation on how much of the earth’s life and matter originated, to borrow a cliché, as stardust.
In the midst of its deep dive into maritime cultural history, Shark Drunk also explores the social world. The book’s main event, after all, is the attempt by Strøksnes and Aasjord to catch a shark from a rubber boat in the Vestfjord. Such an undertaking, carried out in spurts over four seasons, on varied and unpredictable seas, strains not only the duo’s patience, but their friendship, too. Strøksnes routinely puts his daily life on pause, often at short notice, to fly north and ferry out to Aasjord’s family property—an old fish factory—on the island of Skrova just outside of Svolvær. For his part, Hugo, an artist, is constantly at work converting the former factory into a hotel and gallery. His idiosyncratic work habits and attitudes are often irritating to Strøksnes, though he values Hugo’s connection to the equally idiosyncratic waters of the Vestfjord.
Both men’s Ahab-like preoccupation with catching the shark provides ample opportunity for Strøksnes to contemplate the pains of failure and the joys of … well, whatever happens in the end.
Ultimately, while I’m a convert when it comes to the English title, I do think the cover art that was chosen for the Vintage Departures paperback edition of Shark Drunk is gratuitously cartoonish, but then, you know what they say about book covers. Shark Drunk is available from Penguin Random House here: www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/541264/shark-drunk-by-morten-stroksnes. Readers of Norwegian can find Havboka at most Norwegian bookstores. It was first published in 2015 by Oktober Forlag (www.oktober.no/Boeker/Essay-sak/Havboka).
This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.