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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sharks

Jens Bjørneboe

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To purchase The Sharks

Title: The Sharks
Author: Jens Bjørneboe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 241 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Sharks - US
The Sharks - UK
The Sharks - Canada
Haie - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: Haiene
  • Translated by Esther Greenleaf Mürer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid seafaring adventure, with a manageable dose of Bjørneboeian philosophizing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Sharks -- author Jens Bjørneboe's last major work -- seems like a fairly straightforward seafaring novel -- but then nothing is entirely straightforward in a Jens Bjørneboe novel.
       A short Prologue set in the offices of a shipping firm, brings the grim news that now, in April 1900, "half a year after the Neptune sailed from Manila, and four months since she was reported missing", time has come to write her off as lost at sea, with all hands. But the novel proper then begins in the first person, Peder Jensen, second mate on the Neptune, announcing: "I shall relate what happened" -- so clearly things didn't turn out quite so badly. Still, Jensen quickly adds:

Only the Gods in heaven know what was the meaning of that terrible, insane voyage.
       So clearly, things did not exactly go right along the way (and, obviously, the very way itself was lost somewhere along the line, since the ship went missing and was presumed lost). "The voyage of death which was to mark me for life", Jensen calls it .....
       Jensen signed on for the Neptune's voyage from Manila when he was thirty-three. He is literally from the ends of the earth -- from Hammerfest in Norway, which he describes as: "The world's northernmost city". He's someone born for the life of a seaman -- despite having: "a kind of hydrophobia, both bodily and spiritual" -- and he can't imagine any other kind of life. He has few possessions, and no human ties, signing on for a voyage when and where it suits him, almost constantly on the move, almost constantly on the high seas. He doesn't have high aspirations, either: he's captained a few ships, but prefers a lesser role; on the Neptune he is at one point offered the first mate's position, but he declines, wanting neither the additional money nor the responsibility.
       Jensen is drawn to the wonderful, terrible ship from the first -- and prefers to call the 1090 ton, 236-foot three-master: "Sancta Vénere -- Holy Venus -- the orb of love !" He describes her lovingly -- and notes also:
     But did the Sancta Vénere really sail ? No, she glided, afloat between the air-sea over her and the water-sea below her. She glided -- albeit in a mathematically definable fashion, on a course plotted by the convolutions of the human brain -- glided through boundless space like a globe.
       A beautiful scene from when he first gets to sail her has him: "giddy, half-crazed, and senseless with joy" -- and then the captain confront him about pushing the boat so hard. "I have to see what she'll take", Jensen explains to him (after the captain, only half-jokingly, threatens to throw him overboard).
       Despite pushing the boat so hard that one time, Jensen is an eminently sensible man. He functions as the ship's doctor, too, and he keeps the all-important ship's log, recording precisely what happens on the ship -- and repeatedly making it clear that he won't fudge the facts in the ship's record. (With the log lost, this account also functions as a substitute-logbook).
       Beside the captain and his family -- his wife and two young children -- there are, at the start of the voyage, some two-dozen other souls aboard. But it turns out to be a pretty soulless lot. As one of the other officers puts it:
We sail with wild beast on board; with brutes of strange colours and races, full of rebellion, malice, and self-inflicted diseases -- syphilitic, mangy, clap-rotten whoremongers, sodomites and pederasts, murderers and cannibals -- with heathens and aborigines ! Wrath shall strike this spiritual deadhouse of a ship.
       From the first there's tension and great violence among the crew; psychological problems (all the way to full-blown madness) also manifest themselves. Jensen immediately finds himself with severely injured men he has to take care of, as well as a fourteen-year-old boy whose protector (and father-figure) he becomes. This child is a product of a capitalist world gone awry, lost in the London slums where he was, in every respect, undernourished:
     Only poor Pat from London -- a hub of white culture -- knew absolutely nothing. Could do nothing. Was nothing. His ignorance was fabulous; he had no tribal history, no myths, no religion
     I was about to say that he was a tabula rasa. But that he was not. Pat possessed a ghastly wisdom of hunger, filth, homelessness, malnutrition, crime, terror, vice, violence, disease, imprisonment, and madness.
       Despite his best efforts, Jensen can't keep himself from becoming Pat's protector -- something he has difficulty adjusting to, since he has always been entirely on his own.
       Class issues are constantly in view, most obviously in the divide between officers and crew, but also in the form of individuals such as Pat, or in the reading material some of the crew and Jensen spend their time with. At one point Jensen notes borrowing: "a six-hundred-page treatise on Living and Labour Conditions in East London, an outstanding and pioneering work in descriptive sociology" from one of the crew.
       It is the class divide that manifests itself in the two worlds on the ship, crew and officers, that Bjørneboe focuses much of the novel on, class-warfare here working on several levels. And while Jensen admits his sympathies are entirely with the underpaid, overworked crew, he understands:
I was an officer; I had accepted the system. My place was among the rulers, and I enjoyed great freedom, had my own cabin, ate abundantly and well, and earned more than I needed. In a real conflict I should be duty bound to stand on the masters' side against the slaves.
       Needless to say, it eventually comes to a real conflict -- though Bjørneboe ratchets up the tension very nice and slowly. The situation on the boat is much like the sharks that swim alongside the ship -- "steadily, placidly, with limitless patience", until they erupt in a frenzy of bloodthirsty violence, eating even their own. The dreadful scenes in the water are, ultimately, relived in much the same form aboard the ship. And even Jensen learns something more about himself:
One can play one's Mozart -- badly, to be sure -- and read one's Hegel -- perhaps with more understanding; but behind it all, at the bottom of everything, there appears another face: The brutish face of the ruffian and murderer which we probably all -- that is, in any case I myself -- hear innermost in our hearts. It was scarcely pretty and scarcely cheering to see this murderer's face in the glass. Especially disheartening was the fact that I first saw this man inside me so late -- when I was fully thirty-three years old.
       Yes, Jensen had always believed in civilization but finally finds himself in a situation where civilization has not only broken down but where he too finds himself literally un-civilized. That's how bad things can get: a realization that shocks him.
       The eruptions of violence aboard ship can be managed for a while: the captain, of almost superhuman strength, understands the situation and controls it as best he can, but even he knows the continuing escalation can lead only to disaster.
       Interestingly, Bjørneboe opts for what amounts to a deus ex machina -- nature itself, in this case, intervening and forcing a different outcome (essentially saving them all from themselves); interestingly too he does not bother having Jensen describe what amounts to the functioning society that, out of necessity, then develops except in the broadest, simplest outlines. (In that sense, his account really is a substitute ship's log: true seaman that he is, he no longer feels obligated to note the details of what happened away from it, beyond in very general outline.)
       At the end it is literally the dawn of a new age -- "We had now entered upon a new century and a new voyage; we were at the beginning of the nineteen-hundreds". But in a typical nice touch Bjørneboe has Jensen note that they are saved by those who:
had come in for fruit and fresh water. By the end of the afternoon we were all on board. We got vodka and cigarettes.
       Jensen is a changed man by the end, and though he still may wonder about: "the meaning of that terrible, insane voyage" it's clear that what he has seen and experienced is of course nothing more or less than the world in a microcosm -- an ugly, brutal world, where the peace can barely be kept, where civil conflict and revolution are always in the air, where men -- mankind -- are sharks
       The Sharks is a fine sea-adventure tale. It is also a social and political novel -- but even at its most obvious doesn't feel too obvious. Indeed, it's all very artfully done -- making The Sharks a fine introduction to Bjørneboe's writing, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 August 2012

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The Sharks: Reviews: Jens Bjørneboe: Other books by Jens Bjørneboe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976) was a leading Norwegian author.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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