If Bill François’s “Eloquence of the Sardine” were a novel, its title’s counterintuitive correlation would be intriguing but unremarkable — look no further than his compatriot Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” But it is a work of nonfiction, about the sea and the creatures who live there, and his affinity for sardines is sincere.
A scientist with a background in hydrodynamics and biomechanics, François eschews the usual roundup of career achievements and research milestones in favor of a compendium of observations and anecdotes from an earnest aficionado, an environmentalist devoted to the seas. It’s a voice that suits him well, and his enchantment with and affection for the watery world about which he writes radiates from every page.
François was hooked on aquatics after a childhood encounter with a sardine in a tide pool. Because they normally live in open water, “few people know just how lovely a live sardine is.” But it wasn’t simply the fish’s silver scales and electric blue dorsal stripe that piqued his interest, François was generally curious about its life, “its existence, the way it perceived the universe.”
Such humanizing sentiments abound in this book spawned by sea creatures that “have confided their stories… and given me the desire and the inspiration to recount them.” Early on it can be hard to accept just how genuine he is, yet his fervor is infectious and rather refreshing.
François introduces readers to the richness of the world beneath the waves, a world of sounds, scents, colors, electric fields, and aquatic currents, most of which we can’t detect. He talks about fish and mollusks, about coral and whales, and much more. He shares his fascination with the giant oarfish and his love of the noble pen shell. He relates how a Filipino fisherman happened upon the largest pearl on Earth and how “the world’s loneliest whale” was detected in the Pacific Ocean in 1989. “No one has ever laid eyes on this whale, even though we’ve been able to track its solitary yearly migration by listening.”
There are fish tales from history, like the herring off the Swedish coast that were believed to be a Russian submarine; from literature, like the drops of Medusa’s blood that petrified seaweed into coral; and from his own experiences diving, related with a childlike wonder: “The appearance of a dolphin underwater is surreal. It’s as though you’re looking at a toy animal or watching a special effect in a movie, so strange and so perfect are these creatures.”
Some autobiographical episodes are melodramatic, like when he is “sentenced for daydreaming” in school, or fall flat, like a journey into the tunnels beneath Paris that yields nothing more than a fish spotting. And his ardor can be overwrought at times, as when he compares the sounds heard underwater to a “soup of noise,” “shredded vegetables in a stew,” the “nuances of a perfume,” and the “instruments of an orchestra” — all in one paragraph. But these are peccadillos of passion.
And that passion is a distinct advantage when discussing the damage that humans are causing to the sea and to the creatures who live there. François has been heavily involved in developing France’s tuna-tagging program that documents their enigmatic migration patterns and will eventually allow them to be better protected, which is essential because “at the turn of the twenty-first century, after ten years of intensive fishing, less than 15 percent of the bluefin tuna population remained.” Such dispiriting numbers are a refrain. The noble pen shell, his “longtime companion” he writes so beautifully about, is being killed by a parasite that thrives in the warming seas. “In just one year, more than 90 percent of the noble pen shells vanished from the French Mediterranean coasts.”
There are no definitive solutions, but he explores options, as when contrasting the large commercial operations of trawlers, guilty of overfishing cod, salmon, rockfish and more, and the “prud’homies, organizations of elected fishermen-judges who regulate coastal fisheries in France” to ensure that the sea’s “assets [are] distributed fairly.”
As implied by the book’s title, he keeps returning to the importance of communication. He concedes that it is unlikely humans have ever had a “real conversation with marine animals,” even the Indigenous peoples he highlights who have enlisted the aid of remoras or killer whales when fishing, but it depends on your metric. “True dialogues with marine creatures, conversations that are sincere and lasting, never require that we understand their language, nor that we teach them our own.”
And it is this kind of communication that François posits as a potential model for humanity as well, a communication focused on the one trying to tell us something instead of on ourselves. “What if we simply listened to others with our heart, without trying to translate every little word, and spoke that way too, without fear of being slightly misunderstood?” People being people, there will probably be some readers who find François too effusive or hippie-dippie, but that says more about them. For his part, François just wants to spark a discussion. “I hope these aquatic reveries leave you with a few dreams, a few ideas, and the desire to share them with friends.”
ELOQUENCE OF THE SARDINE
By Bill François
St. Martin’s, 192 pages, $26.99
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.