Monday, 1 June 2015

The Fly Trap - Fredrik Sjöberg *****

I have to beg the popular science reader's indulgence a little with this title as there's not a huge amount of science in it - but it is the most delightful book I've read so far this year. What science there is sits very firmly in Rutherford's category of 'stamp collecting', but there are still interesting insights into the drive behind natural history and the urge to catalogue. 

Fredrik Sjöberg refers to the 'stamp collecting' aspect as buttonology, a term he takes from Strindberg, one of many literary references. Generally speaking, I hate popular science books where the author has the illusion that he is writing 'literature' and churns out a choppy mess of allusions and metaphor. But that's not at all what is happening here. Unlike those authors with pretensions of artiness, here there is nothing pretentious.

Let's get the science bit in first. Sjöberg is an entomologist; specifically he spends his days collecting and classifying hoverflies. I so wish he allowed himself to tell us a bit more about the creatures themselves. There are plenty of passing references to various Latin names and habitats and more - but like most people, I suspect, I had just thought of hoverflies as those rather poor small copies of wasps that hover about in a most un-wasplike manner. I hadn't realised there were species that imitated everything from bumblebees to hornets - and some were almost indistinguishable from the real thing without an expert eye. I genuinely wanted to read more on hoverflies and their lives.

What Sjöberg does do, though, is to give a kind of defence of the stamp collecting aspect of natural history (while gently poking fun at the collecting urge), showing how it goes beyond simple ticks of the box to the link between different species and habitat, or changes in the environment. However there is much more to the book than the science, as is made clear by the opening where we meet a youthful Sjöberg in a job as a props person in a theatre, left in charge of the live sheep required for a particular play.

In his many idle hours - because apart from simply thinking while waiting around for flies, Sjöberg seems to spend a fair amount of his time doing anything other than working - rather like an author in that respect - Sjöberg has the chance to consider literary parallels to his situation, and to fill in details on his other passion, the life and work of the Swedish entomologist René Malaise. Apparently Malaise is a byword in the business for defining the definitive large, tent-like fly trap, but Sjöberg takes up nearly half of the book on Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka, his theories on Atlantis, his life in general and his art collection. The artworks (and Sjöberg's attempt to buy one) finish the book, for me rather weakly as it's the least interesting part of the story.

Seen as a whole, the book has two main recurrent themes, collecting and islands, because Sjöberg does all his collecting, year after year, on one small Swedish island, where he has by now identified 202 hoverfly species. And for me, this is where is writing is best, evoking excellent wild country memoirs like Neil Ansell's Deer Island. But throughout the book Sjöberg maintains interest in a way it's hard to imagine the thoughts of a Swedish hoverfly collector doing. I was sad when I got to the end - fairly quickly, both because I wanted to keep reading and because the book is shorter than it looks, as the text is unusually widely spaced. In part, the accolade for keeping my interest has to go to the translator Thomas Teal, but it's Sjöberg's light but penetrating observations, gentle humour and butterfly mind (see what I did there?) that keep the reader enthralled.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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