Prosek (Bird, Butterfly, Eel, 2009, etc.) seeks to get a grip on that slippery creature, the eel.
Eels can grow as big as pythons and routinely do in the western Pacific, and they are slimy and can inflict a wicked bite. Their association with the snake often stirs unease, but not in the author, who has fallen under the eel’s spell—not unlike that experienced in the cultures and cosmologies of the Maori of New Zealand, the Chinese and Japanese and the people on the Pacific island of Pohnpei, Micronesia. Though Prosek doesn’t neglect the natural history of the eel, so little is known about its lifeways that he concentrates more on the symbolic powers of the giant freshwater eel. These accounts offer glimpses into the faith and traditions of frequently mysterious cultures, yet some Maoris and Pohnpeians recognized in the author a sympathetic soul, unlike those of the colonizing Europeans who nearly eradicated the Maori, as well as their eel as a icon. Prosek understands that in retelling these stories he offers only a glimmering of the eels’ customary complexity and ambiguity, but he does well in interweaving the mythological and the personal. The author is also a diligent natural historian, keen to the greater landscape. He vividly evokes a bleached-white coral path reflecting the moonlight on Pohnpei, and an eel catcher on the Delaware River, “with his long beard, the hills of the Catskills and the rusty yellow foliage of the beech trees behind him…looked like an old Russian bush guide making his way up the Amur.” Prosek provides plenty of fun facts, as well—the Borgias may have used eel-blood poison on their enemies, and “the astronomer Montanari believed that an eel’s liver facilitated delivery in childbirth.”
A warm, enrapturing paean to the totemic potency of eels.