Salar the Salmon
Salar the Salmon, whose name means “the Leaper,” a five-year-old salmon in his prime. For two years, he had been a smolt, living in the river of his birth. For three years after that, he lived in the ocean, feeding on its richer food and growing in strength as a grilse. At the start of the novel, he is about to obey the salmon’s instinct to return from the sea to spawn in the river where he was born, after which, exhausted, he will die. Salar faces many dangers in the course of his journey to the river’s headwaters: seals, porpoises, conger eels, and killer whales in the sea; men’s hooks and lines in the river; and otters and poison algae. His greatest obstacle, however, is the weirs that people have built. He must leap up them against the current. Salar surmounts all these difficulties and succeeds in fertilizing the eggs of the grilse Gralaks. Humans would call his behavior instinctive and therefore devoid of individual character, but the reader comes to admire the unfailing courage and drive of the fish, beautifully expressed in the salmon leaps that give him his name. The world he lives in, however, is presented remorselessly as one of continuous savage conflict, in which few live to breed and species prey on one another just as much as they are preyed on by other species and by humans.
Shiner, a poacher, the only named person in the book. As with the fish, humans live in a state of constant conflict with one another. The lower-class fishermen are preyed on by the water-bailiffs, who allege that their job is to conserve fish stocks but who are seen by the netters as class enemies, dedicated only to preserving salmon so that they can be taken on rod and line by rich sport fishermen. Shiner is opposed to netters, anglers, and bailiffs alike, and he seems driven by a reverence for life that makes him immobilize a poaching gang’s car and at one point open a vital sluice to give Salar the chance to swim upstream. He takes fish in the same way the animals do: one at a time, without sport or ritual, and only for his own needs.
Petromyzon, a lamprey, one of Salar’s potentially deadliest enemies. His hunting mode is to clamp onto a fish and then slowly drain it of blood like a giant leech. Salar is saved from his attack only by the intervention of the even more repulsive Myxine, or sea-hag, a creature that clamps onto Petromyzon in his turn and sucks at him from inside. The two creatures present a dramatic allegory of the constant struggle for survival.
Trutta, a great spotted pug-trout who accompanies Salar on his journey, with the same intention of spawning. Trutta, like all trout, is a cannibal who eats his own kind, but he shows a kind of loyalty in his dogged following of the larger salmon. At the end, Trutta harasses hunting otters as they try to catch the weakened Salar. He is trapped and killed by the otters.
Gralaks, a female grilse salmon who functions in the novel as an image of young beauty. She is the counterpart of Salar in her urge to lay her eggs in the headwater of her birth, to be fertilized indiscriminately by the milt of Salar or other salmon, or eaten by cannibal fishes. Gralaks shows that if there is no love in this animal world, there is nevertheless desire and yearning.
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