Thursday, 10 September 2009

Leviathan - or the Whale

I found a review of this book on someone else's bookblog and realised that it was a book I really wanted to read, so I bought it to take on holiday with me. Then, by a complete coincidence, when I arrived in Italy and went out for a drink in my favourite Piazza, I found that they were hosting a sculpture exhibition that was all about whales. The exhibition was completely in tune with the book, since it focussed on man's exploitation of the animal.

Three fibreglass minke whales hung from a gibbet and a gigantic blue whale swam across the marble paving, pulled on a rope behind a small girl. The message was very clear.

Philip Hoare's book, Leviathan, won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction this year and absolutely deserves the award. It is profound, beautifully written, exhaustively researched, and manages to achieve the impossible - to be both readable and as complex as its subject. Philip tells the story of mankind's relationship with the whale - from the mythical and mystical animal of ancient stories, to the commercial object of modern times. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is the central thread of his narrative, but round it is woven everything we know or have heard about the Whale. The book is a very personal journey for Philip Hoare, who has been obessed by whales since he was a child, perhaps, he writes, the result of almost being born under water - his mother having gone into labour on a submarine.

His descriptions of the wholesale slaughter of whales in the twentieth century is stomach churning (more whales were killed in 1951 alone than in the entire preceding hundred and fifty), but his account of swimming with whales off the islands of the Azores moved me to tears. Why do whales evoke such a response in so many of us? Is it just their massive size? The mystery of their hidden lives in the vast depths of the world's oceans? The empathy of one intelligent mammal for another?(the human race hasn't been renowned for too much of that). Or is it something much more primeval? Something in the whale's song that echoes far back in our own evolution? Whales are old, much older than our own species.

Philip Hoare points up the paradoxes - the Hubble telescope looking back at the origins of the universe on machinery lubricated by spermaceti oil; space probes programmed to play whale song far out into the cosmic night; the fact that a quarter of a million whales are still killed every year, some of them supposedly for food - though the whales they catch have flesh too polluted to eat. Many whale species now have breeding pools too small to regenerate. We have managed, in two hundred years, to wipe out something that evolution spent a billion creating.

This book is a celebration of one of the greatest species ever to live on earth, and a savage critique of the way humanbeings treat those who share the planet with us.


  1. That sculpture exhibition looks great, do you know who the work was by? I'm so desperate to read 'Leviathan' (especially after reading a Times article where Hoare comes off as extremly whale obsessed - I think every writer should ahve an obsession) but my non-fic piles teeter as it is.

  2. It's by Stefano Bombardieri and called 'The Animal's Countdown'. There's some info if you go to the Commune di Pietrasanta website and follow links through 'culture' to 'art and exhibitions'(you might have to get a google translation of the page). Philip Hoare is whale obsessed, but not in a bad way. I was really moved by the book. But it's not a book to read quickly - I had to keep stopping to think about it and sometimes re-read. I normally get through a book in a few hours, but not this one.

  3. I don't know Kathleen, first herons, now whales! We'll have to argue it's a case of great minds think alike!

  4. Dreadful isn't it! But I did post this at least one day ahead of you!