As a young boy, Bill François manages to catch a wayward sardine with his toy net and pail while clambering around the rocky Mediterranean coast of his native France.
I say wayward because sardines aren’t solitary creatures and they don’t usually swim close to shore.
When he lets the glittering silvery fish go, the sardine beckons him to follow.
And he does.
Eloquence of the Sardine
By Bill François; translated by Antony Shugaar
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2021
Bill François is a physicist and naturalist with a PhD in fish hydrodynamics from the École Normale Supérieur is Paris.
His book, Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea, is … what, exactly?
Well, this slim little book defies categorization.
First and foremost, it’s a collection of stories about life in and around the sea. These stories aren’t fiction, although they include some tall tales. They’re more like history mixed with legend and memory, like the story of a nearly immortal eel and its patient and unquenchable desire to return to the sea.
It’s part memoir, sprinkled with episodes from his life, such as the time he and some pals were nearly caught by the cops – gendarmes – for trespassing in the underground canals of Paris. Or his rich sensory descriptions of what it’s like under water, how it feels, looks, and sounds.
There’s a lot of fascinating science in the book too. François explains how and why the scales of the sardine are so mirror-like, the symbiotic relationships going on inside coral polyps, and the incredible intelligence of the octopus.
It’s about the terrible damage humans are causing to the oceans through pollution, climate change and over-fishing.
“But suddenly a terrible screeching rings out in the calm of the depths. The metal panels of a trawl net rake through the reef at stunning speed, so fast that nothing can escape, sweeping everything in its path into a vast pocket and leaving nothing behind but a trail of sludge. It would take millennia of painstaking work by coral polyps to reconstruct the reef, centuries of slow growth by the rockfish to repopulate it. But the trawl net returns relentlessly, to hollow out the same scars ten time per year.” [p. 84]
Mainly it’s about our relationship to the oceans, how human societies have depended upon, related to, and even collaborated with the vast array of undersea life.
François could have easily and justifiably written a polemic, railing about human destruction of life in the oceans. And he certainly doesn’t shy away from describing the havoc we’re causing.
But he also tells stories of redemption, how coastal communities in different parts of the world have worked together to protect critical species like bluefin tuna, and how those species can recover. These are models of respect for nature and stewardship of the environment that we need more of.
The writing is lovely, exciting in some places, lyrical in others – a tribute to both François and his translator, Antony Shugaar. Here, for instance, is François as a schoolboy, day-dreaming and doodling on a piece of graph paper during math class:
“I bobbed along the waves of the drawing. A sardine appeared beneath my pencil tip, slowly developing and taking shape. I could already hear the sound of the surf in the scratching of graphite on paper. The classroom was fading into the blur of a coastal fog. Little by little the fish grew in size. Its image carried me off with it.” [pp. 45-46]
Eloquence of the Sardine started off a little slowly, and I found some of the stories less interesting, especially those that centered more on humans than on aquatic species, but by the time I reached the last few chapters I didn’t want the book to end.
As it finishes, the book comes full circle in a most delightful and unexpected way. It left me with a lingering smile
Eloquence of the Sardine is François’s invitation to each of us to reconnect with nature, with life in the sea, to listen carefully to the stories it can tell us, and to experience it deeply so that we can tell some stories of our own.
Thanks for reading.
* * *
Thanks to Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction for this recommendation.