Deep connections: Philip Hoare's seminal encounter with a blue whale

Hoare's narrative style - retrospective and digressive - perfectly suits the way he processes this life-changing experience.

The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare.
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On a small boat off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, just a few hours’ flight from Abu Dhabi, the English writer Philip Hoare has his first live encounter with Balaenoptera musculus: the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have existed on Earth. Having previously known the blue whale only “as a shape against a white page, laid out with the rest of its relatives in the austere context of a field guide”, Hoare is simply blown away by this “living construction that leaves words in its wake”. The details of the encounter are too much to take in at once and it is only in retrospect, he tells us, while “looking at my photographs”, that he can “recall what I must have seen but not registered in the moment: that with its forward motion the animal drags the sea down with it, as if the water were parting to make way for the whale”.

This moment, related in “The Sea of Serendipity”, the fifth chapter of Hoare’s latest book, The Sea Inside, is emblematic of his narrative technique, which is both retrospective and unabashedly digressive. The reader is borne along on the stream of Hoare’s associative consciousness, treated to a wide variety of strange stories and facts. Hoare goes on to associate the laser used by a scientist to gauge the size of a blue whale with “the visible rays in medieval paintings that connect God’s gaze to his saints”. And he notes in passing a few pages later that “the ancient name for Sri Lanka is Serendip, from which came our serendipity, coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole after reading a translation of the 16th-century Italian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose characters ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.”

Walpole’s quote is actually a reasonably good description of Hoare’s book, which blends memoir, natural history, cultural history and travelogue in unexpected ways. Taking us across the world’s oceans in search of whales, The Sea Inside is both a sequel to and a by-product of Hoare’s previous book, Leviathan. That book was a paean to whales and to Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick; it was awarded the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. In both works, Hoare’s erudition and love for cultural history are on display on nearly every page. His style recalls Henry David Thoreau’s approach to nature writing in Walden: both authors are writing as much about culture as they are about nature, and it’s worth remembering that Hoare’s earlier books were histories of the trial of Oscar Wilde, of Victorian Utopianism and of a military hospital in his hometown of Southhampton.

The chapter on Sri Lanka, for example, is grounded in both the cultural history of Sri Lanka and the natural history of the blue whale, which Hoare brings together in ways that Sri Lankans themselves do not. He is astounded to realise that “the blue whales of Sri Lanka have no place in the island’s culture” and to discover, when visiting a school assembly in the town of Galle, that only “half a dozen” of the schoolchildren present had ever seen a whale, “despite the fact that such stupendous creatures swim only a few kilometres off the beaches on which the children play”. Hoare begins the chapter with paragraphs that are marked by a travel writer’s eye for detail, situating us colourfully in the town of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, before launching us along with his boat into the encounter with the blue whale. Later on, we learn about the Russian whaleboat captain Valentina Yakovlevna Orlikova, whom Hoare dubs “a Soviet Ahabess armed with a missile-harpoon”; meditate on the ways in which whale scientists unintentionally colluded with whale hunters; and discover the history of a small island that lies off the shore of Weligama, where the “self-styled Count de Mauny Talvande” built a “fantastical confection” of a house that would become – for a brief while – the property of the writer Paul Bowles, who would pen his novel The Spider’s House there before he was driven out by monsoons and high taxes.

Such colourful anecdotes are the meat-and-potatoes of Hoare's writing in The Sea Inside, which begins by exploring Hoare's hometown of Southampton (with the briefest of glances over to the Americas), then takes us to the open air of the Isle of Wight and the confines of London's Hunterian Museum and Zoological Society; to the Azores, Sri Lanka; and finally Australia before returning, wiser and, I think, sadder to Southampton. Wherever he goes, Hoare pays homage to a select few, like Bowles, whose stories seem to haunt the locale. We hear, for example, about the early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in connection with Hoare's day trip to the Isle of Wight.

The book’s cast of supporting characters includes John Hunter, the 18th-century naturalist and collector of remains (both animal and human), who died from complications of the syphilis that he had contracted while attempting to inoculate himself against gonorrhoea; the aboriginal Tasmanian princess Truganini, who survived both the depredations of whalemen and the genocidal impulses of Australian settlers; and the Maori warrior Te Pehi Kupe, who went to England seeking guns to wreak revenge on his enemies back home and who may have been the model for Melville’s Queequeg. These characters, with their unusual lives and disturbing fates, make reading The Sea Inside an informative and thought-provoking experience.

We also meet a number of Hoare’s ancestors, a colourful if somewhat unsavoury lot that includes his great-great-uncle James, who left England for Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and, according to family legend, amassed a great fortune either running a tea plantation or a slave-trading operation before dying at sea; his great-great-grandfather (also) James, who migrated to America after impregnating a girl from the neighbouring village and probably died somewhere on the wagon trail to the West; and a distant cousin (yet another James) who was convicted of theft and transported to Australia. Hoare’s family history thus articulates some of the major lines of English colonialism and, in retelling the stories of his forebears and the places in which they ended up, Hoare necessarily touches on some of the brutal aspects of England’s attempt to insinuate its power across the globe.

The Sea Inside is thus also a collage of moments in the history of western exploration and the violence that often accompanied it. Native peoples around the world were often victimised by the Europeans they encountered and Hoare offers some stark accounts of what they suffered. But he also pays attention to the sufferings of the natural world, at the hands of scientists and collectors in England and of settlers and hunters in territories elsewhere. Perhaps the most moving is his account of the extinction of the thylacine, popularly known as the Tasmanian tiger, which ends with a slim ray of hope.

Readers who enjoyed Leviathan will find themselves at home in The Sea Inside, which adopts and perhaps magnifies the digressive style of the earlier work. Neophytes should be warned that they may find the new book’s long first two chapters somewhat heavy sailing: if there is a flaw in The Sea Inside, it is that it adopts a languorous narrative pace at the outset, as if the author were determined to establish a contemplative air to make his reader receptive to the strange stories and insights that follow. Hoare also can’t resist the periodic Thoreauvian flight of fancy about the nature of the sea; for my money, the book is strongest when grounded in material history or immersed in the details of the natural world.

In the end, there is something mournful about The Sea Inside: it’s a narrative of exile and return that recounts its author’s struggle to come to terms with both the mysteries of the sea and the mysteries of the self. As much as it is a book about the beauties of the natural world, it’s also a book about loss, extinction and human frailty. The book is framed by Hoare’s personal loss – the death of his mother – and in many ways its true subject is the author’s fleeing to the ends of the earth to avoid having to “pluck up the courage to clear my mother’s room”.

Hoare does find that courage in the closing pages of the book, but anyone who has experienced life as an expatriate is likely to be moved by Hoare’s final discovery: that home isn’t quite what he thought it was. The book ends on a disquieting note: “I close my notebook and put it on the shelf, along with all the others. There’s no such place as home. And we live there, you and me.”

Like the cold ocean in which Hoare feels compelled to swim as often as possible, The Sea Inside is both exhilarating and bracing, vividly representing the variety and vitality of life on earth – and its fragility.

Cyrus Patell teaches literature and humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi.