An orphan brought up in Switzerland by his eccentric grandmother, Daniel Serraz, protagonist of John David Morley's novel, is a man of indecision whose drift through life is exemplified by his bizarre hobby of floating down rivers in a wet suit. It is, at least, an antidote to his duties at an insurance company. His Japanese wife, Kozue - who works as an interpreter - drives along the bank to pick him up once he's finished.
But when she miscarries their child, their telepathic closeness crumbles, each internalising their emotions. Kozue finds herself defending Japan's detestable position on whaling when she interprets at meetings of the International Whaling Commission; Serraz retreats into aquatic fantasies.
Since boyhood, he has fancied himself as throwback to Ambulocetus natans, the evolutionary origin of the whale: an amniotic, atavistic emblem. But in middle age, his predilection for immersing his ungainly bulk results in a brush with death in a Swiss lake.
Reborn, by way of a pig's valve fitted to his heart, Serraz leaves his wife and the safety of Swiss medical care to go in search of his lost roots - his parents having drowned, he believes, off an Indonesian island. His pilgrimage is a way of reclaiming his past, and present. It also leads him closer to the objects of his obsession.
The villagers of Lefó, an island without money, petrol, electricity or much else that defines Western civilisation, still hunt whales. But they are specific in their cull. Their origin myth tells them that their ancestors came on the back of a baleen whale; therefore the pursuit of those species - with their harmless fringes of keratin, hanging like bony blinds to catch krill - is taboo.
The sperm whale is a different matter. This, the largest of toothed whales, is deemed a worthy opponent. Sailing on raft-like tena, the hunters listen for the distinctive whoosh of a whale spout, a sound accurately likened to the ocean itself breathing. The harpooneer launches not only his weapon but his entire body at the leviathan, skidding off its back. Death on this scale can take hours; the account of the hunt (which the author evidently witnessed) is almost too gruesome to bear.
But there is true beauty here, too, in passages which are dream-like and philosophical by turns. A description of a professor coming upon a pod of sperm whales stranded on a remote coastline is intensely moving. As one whale beaches itself, others follow and find themselves in the same mortal straits: "Dagama thought that home for a whale was wherever it found the other whales to whom it belonged, even in death".
The pathos of the scene speaks eloquently of an eternal search for home. Yet with the villagers, it seems Serraz has found anchorage after a life adrift. He lives among them, drinking palm wine with the men, setting out to sea each day in search of whales.
The Melvillean climax comes when the long dearth of prey is dramatically reversed by a sperm whale breaching close to shore. To anyone lucky enough to have witnessed this spectacle - one of nature's most grandiloquent and theatrical acts - Morley's cool, spare words are vividly evocative. The 50-feet, 100-ton whale is seen "standing on the water... like a column in the sunlight, his great gleaming body hauled fully clear of the surface". So, too, this fine novel stands in the sun, caught in its own momentary promise of cetacean freedom.
Philip Hoare's 'England's Lost Eden' is published by Fourth Estate.Reuse content