One of my favourite passages in Wildwood is the description of the language of jackdaws. Deakin says that one of the books that inspired him as a child was Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, and that in his favourite chapter, Lorenz begins to learn the language of jackdaws. The cry “kiaw”, he says, is uttered by dominant jackdaws to urge the flock homewards. When a marten broke into the aviary at Lorenz’s home and killed all but one of the jackdaws, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw,” “Come back, oh, come back.” It was a song of heartbreak.
In Tisala, Richard Seward Newton attempts to portray something like this on a massive scale. A young biologist called David finds himself alone on a remote Scottish island, supposedly studying the local deer population for his PhD. One evening when he is rowing around his island, he notices a disturbance in the water nearby. He assumes it’s a shoal of fish, and then, when he sees the curve of a huge back, perhaps a basking shark. It is only when he catches a flash of blue slate that he realises he is looking at a blue whale. In a frenzy of excitement David greets the whale, which circles around his small boat in curiosity. The pair meet again the next night, and the night after that, until it becomes clear that the whale is trying to communicate with David. After months of trying and with the use of scientific equipment, the pair finally manage to strike up a conversation which shapes the rest of their lives.
The idea is a fascinating one; and as a history of one of the more brutal, unsustainable methods used by humans to exploit the natural world, I can’t think that Tisala has many rivals. The author’s knowledge of the whaling industry over the centuries is vast, and related in a very accessible, devastating way. Interwoven with this is the whale, Tisala’s, own story – a narration of how the world he knew has been destroyed by centuries of relentlessly cruel hunting, and his quest to save his species from extinction. Like the jackdaws, Tisala is anthropomorphized, and clearly experiences profound grief. In particular, he is bewildered by the fact that what he calls the genocide of his species was in part motivated by the need to provide whalebone for hats and corsets, and latterly, to make cheap food for cattle. And David can find no justification.
From a philosophical and historical point of view, the novel has a lot to recommend it. I had had a vague knowledge of whaling (gleaned mostly from Moby Dick…) and understood from occasional news articles that, much like EU fishing quotas, the IWC struggled with enforceability. I learnt a great deal more here, though; and I can appreciate the value of trying to look at human behaviour through the lens of another species.
That being said, I did have a number of reservations. First, I think there is a danger in over-sentimentalising and anthropormorphising animals as a way of persuading humans not to harm them. It may well be that cetaceans grieve as profoundly as we do, and it is almost certainly true that most of us at least have almost no understanding of the language, emotional intelligence and societal structures of other species. That, though, cannot be the main argument for preserving biodiversity. Although it’s beguiling, it seems dangerous to rank species relative to how like humans they are – the reduction in the number of Antarctic krill is no less worthy of our attention, for example. The catastrophic destruction of whale populations as a direct result of human activity is shameful and very easy to feel enraged by, and to mourn – I cried plenty during reading this book – but we shouldn’t just conserve wildlife because its destruction is distressing. There is a moment in the book when Tisala accuses humans of destroying miracles you do not even see. It’s a very quotable line, and one that resonated. Of course we should question the ethics of the ways in which we treat the natural world – but surely we will have a better chance of protecting it if we stop using human characteristics as a yardstick to measure a species’ value by.
I also really struggled to connect with the human characters in the novel. Tisala, with his rumbling laugh and keen intelligence, is beautifully drawn, and I’d say the novel’s real success. David, though, occasionally makes odd, inexplicable missteps – early on, for example, he describes the marital successes of various types of girl in a bizarrely sexist way: the timid, plainer and conventional girls are given a chance at parties to establish their often kind and competent qualities, which enable them to win a husband; but woe betide the girls who, having played the game too long or with too much looseness, choosiness or pride, remained unmarried…and on party nights [would] apply more make-up with creeping apprehension. I couldn’t quite believe it. In the context of this vast novel it’s perhaps unfair of me to focus on such a fleeting moment – but it’s alienating, and is the sort of sweeping, slightly unthinking language which bought me up short, and meant I struggled to empathise with David. Essentially there are times when the language just lost its fluency, and seemed unnatural.
For me, it was also far too long. It’s such an interesting idea, but I felt as though it could have been pared down to its core components – Tisala, whaling, and the need for humans to reconsider the way they treat the natural world. A great deal of the book is given over to David and Tisala’s extended conversations on education, and population size, and warfare, for example – and I can appreciate why, as Tisala functions almost like an aquatic Montaigne, holding a mirror up to human life. For me, though, there was just too much – I couldn’t switch between the brutal, compelling story of Tisala’s family to these esoteric conversations; and in the effort of trying to do so, I lost the story’s rhythm.
Overall, I’m pleased I found Tisala. It talks about things I’m very interested in in an inventive and thoughtful way; it never quite captivated me, and from time to time the style or an opinion jarred, but as an impassioned record of a brutal industry, it is a very interesting book.