January 20th, 2008


In Båtsfjord on the Barents Sea

You're not quite sure who you were and where you lived before. All you know is where you live now: Finnmark, on the coast of the Barents Sea. Here, in the sub-polar Arctic, renegade bits of Norway, Sweden and Finland join up with lost particles of Russia. Båtsfjord, your town, is 70 degrees north and has an 80 degree temperature range -- it can go from minus 50 in winter to plus 30 centigrade in the summer.

At this time of year there's no sun at all in Båtsfjord -- "polar nights", they call them. You work in the crab processing plant -- the money's pretty good -- wearing hygienic protective clothing. Everybody in this town wears brightly-coloured functional clothes; most of the jobs in Båtsfjord are something to do with fishing and fish processing. The equipment is also painted in primaries and fluorescents; orange, pink, yellow, bright green. It almost makes up for the lack of light, the general greyness, blackness and whiteness of everything here. Another thing that compensates, of course, is the aurora borealis. Sometimes the sky seems to wear fluorescent safety gear too.

The commodity that makes this lurid, sparse, functional town possible is crabs. Not just any crabs, but the world's largest, the Kamchatka Crab. They aren't native to the Barents Sea; Joseph Stalin introduced them from the Pacific in 1930 to help feed the hundreds of thousands of people he was sending to Siberia at the time.

Originally basic protein for prisoners and exiles, the Kamchatka Crab is now a premium-priced luxury product. That's capitalism for you, I guess; take prolefeed and package it as aristogourmet. The crab is also a bit of an environmental hazard. These pinky-white extraterrestrial arachnid things, up to six feet in span, hobble along the bottom of the ocean devouring every living thing in their path. They're spreading west at the rate of 20 kilometres a day, clawing their way around the coast of Norway towards the North Sea.

All this sounds fairly intentional, but the creatures don't even have a central brain. Like cockroaches they have bits of low intelligence distributed across their nervous system -- at the tops of their legs, for instance. They're unloaded from the Russian and Norwegian fishing vessels alive, and killed in the processing plant by being chopped in two, right down the hard shell of the back. The nervous system just fizzles and stops. That's where your job starts. You assess the various parts for meat quality, grade them. Then other employees wash them, pack them and box them up. 70% of what we process here goes to Japan.

You don't know what you did before, or where -- your memory is as bare as the rocky Martian hills behind the little red metal house where you live. But this is what you do now, here. When work is finished you might go to the bar with your workmates (when the masks come off, suddenly they have faces) or climb the icy, gritty permafrosted path that leads away from the flat industrial quayside. You'll watch the late flight descending into Båtsfjord Airport as you fumble for your key with big orange-gloved hands. You'll remove your moonboots, take off your thermal suit, click on the television, take a shower, crack open a beer, and head to the kitchen freezer to select a pack of fish for dinner. As you slide the pale frozen block out of its packet you watch the lights of a square-windowed Russian ship sliding into position under pink cranes. And you wonder, as usual, who you were and what you did before.