THE SHARKS concludes Bjorneboe's great series of novels, an achievement that someday perhaps will be ranked with the work of Kafka, Camus and Bellow, to mention but three distinctive novelists of the twentieth century who come to mind. Following the trilogy known as THE HISTORY OF BESTIALITY, all three novels of which are narrated by a man weighed down with the misery of the world, obsessed with human cruelty and injustice, and psychologically deformed by rage, hatred and alcoholism, the narrator-protagonist of THE SHARKS will come as a surprise. He is clear-headed, steady-handed and to a certain extent at peace with the world. One senses that the author cleaned himself up, went on the wagon and took on a project intended to prove that he could write a conventional novel accessible to any literate and sensitive soul. The result is a sea-story that deserves in every respect to stand alongside Melville and Conrad, and were it not for their precedence would be the best one of all.
Which is not to say that the hero, Peder Jensen, second mate and ship's doctor by default, is a well-adjusted socialite. Rather, he has "Neptune of the blood" and is driven away from society out to sea, though he dreads its roar and consuming depths. Yet when he stands at the helm of the ship he adores and calls Sancta Venere, steering it through the night, he reflects on humankind with a measure of hope. He sees it poised like himself on a point between the infinite universe of stars above and the immeasurable depths of the ocean below, yet imbued with a life-spirit, a world-soul, that pervades and encompasses everything. As it happens, the ship, which has set sail in October 1899, is doomed, and the century toward it and its crew are headed is the very same that inspired the author of the previous novels with recoiling horror. That he maintains such mastery of himself and his subject in this novel demonstrates great nobility of will and spirit.
The crew is filled with desperados, cutthroats and every kind of ethnic rabble, plus a capitalist slavedriver for capitan and a religious fanatic for first mate; the action is violent, explosive and unpredictable; there is also a tender story of a lost boy reminiscent of Mikhail Sholokhov's "The Fate of a Man." The sharks of the title are present not to eat everyone but rather to be eaten: when cut and bleeding in the water they are attacked by their kin, yet in the frenzy of feeding and thrashing turn to chomp on their own innards streaming from their guts. These bloodied sharks are hurled in the water after the men have sliced off their fins for soups and gauged out their livers for medicines. So the more hopeful Bj'rneboe has not lost his critical eye. His last novel is escapist literature of a high order, providing much food for thought and a tour de force of artistic prose in Murer's unfailingly vigorous translation.