Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg

Granta Books, 2010
originally published as Anders Sparrman resa: en biografisk roman
translated by Tom Geddes
401 pp.

I have to say at the outset that I don't think I've ever come across anything quite like this book.  Its full title is The Journey of Anders Sparrman: A Biographical Novel, and that would seem to be the case. However, there is so much more in these 400 pages than just a man's life story -- it is filled with an appreciation of the natural world; it is a story about the power and the changing nature of science, and it is above all a novel of discovery.   It begins with small, two-page chapters: Encyclopaedia Entry, and Childhood Home, very academic in tone. After these somewhat austere sections, there is a surprise lurking in the very next chapter -- the reader moves from a rather dry few pages to some of the most beautiful descriptions of the natural environment I've ever come across in fiction.

The Anders Sparrman of this biographical novel was a real person, a Swedish naturalist and physician.   At the age of fourteen, he came to Uppsala to study medicine, but within a few years,  via an offer from his mentor Carl Linnaeus, Sparrman was able to join the crew of a ship going to China. Having not yet taken his medical exams, he signed on as a "barber-surgeon" but his main mission was to collect specimens and make observations for Linnaeus.  After returning to Sweden from that voyage, Sparrman completed a doctorate in medicine, then undertook yet another journey on his professor's behalf, this time to South Africa.  From there he joined the crew of Captain James Cook, who was circumnavigating the world for the second time.  After the end of that epic voyage, Sparrman returned to South Africa, then finally returned to Sweden, where he became the curator of what would eventually become the National Museum.

Told in three parts, in both first- and third-person narrative and incorporating some of  Sparrman's actual journal entries and letters, Wästberg's novel tracks this somewhat obscure figure throughout his life, which also happens to encompass several unique moments in history. Although Sparrman's experiences in different parts of the world helped make him the person he ultimately became, the novel is also the story of a man who journeys through life, not simply a book about his travels.

Part I of The Journey of Anders Sparrman is by far the best part of this novel, encompassing Sparrman's childhood, education and scientific voyages of discovery.  Knowing since he was a young boy that  "Nature would be his life's work," once in Uppsala, Sparrman "registered for service in Nature's temple," intending to "remain within her expansive embrace." His mentor, Linnaeus,
 cultivated in his pupil ...the ability to enter into Nature's delights with open eyes, and to encourage the dipper that dives into the waterfall, the siren that sings in the sea, the mussels that consume the very rock they cling to, the polecat that defends itself with a noxious stench. Phenomenon such as these filled him with reverence for the world's cornucopia. Though he did not underestimate the cruelty involved in the processes of life. Nor indeed did he attempt to shrink from anything in this world where all creatures 'tear each other limb from limb without mercy.'
Prior to his departure from Sweden on his voyage to China, Linnaeus counseled Sparrman to
Be a vagabond in the true meaning of the word, seeing all the beauty and profundities of the world, from its deep ravines to its droplets of resin and sap.
And this is precisely what Sparrman does, writing journals and collecting specimens on both the China trip and on Cook's voyage around the world.  But it is his time in South Africa that he feels the most free and in tune with nature, where "something spectral, voracious and intractable was welling up beneath the objective reality."   After returning from circumnavigating the globe in 1775, he and his companion Daniel Immelman traveled into South Africa's Cape Colony interior (the Karoo), where they moved "across the pages of Creation," studying the flora and fauna as well as the landscape of this hitherto unexplored area, writing his observations at night by the light of fireflies in a glass. It is here where Sparrman gains some deep insight into the nature of humankind, and comes to probably his fullest appreciation of nature.  However, juxtaposed with the feelings of freedom that Sparrman feels in living this "itinerant life," are the cruelties of the slave trade, "that violent outrage against the natural rights of mankind." His journal entries record in detail the capture, misuse and punishments of the native peoples, who Sparrman notes have been "misrepresented," and among whom he found a "happiness and contentment" seldom seen. Between the Boer quest for farmland and the slave trade, Wästberg notes that by 1778, two years after Sparrman left Cape Colony, all of the independent Khoikhoi villages had been eradicated. Sparrman's journal details his position on slavery, one that would make him a staunch abolitionist the rest of his life:
My desire is for a country where no-one makes unlawful use of power, where justice prevails, poverty decreases year by year, and the earth produces many harvests. Yet there can be no true amity until the country is ruled by its own inhabitants.

Part II covers Sparrman's life in Stockholm, where at first he was quite successful. There he served as curator for the collections of the Academy of Science and those donated by other collectors of natural history, charged with
... showing Nature's remarkable products and achievements to 'the young who are desirous of learning, and to inquisitive citizens...'
Sparrman also wrote various papers and conducted studies on several phenomena, gave talks, and joined various organizations, but as time passed, he became disenchanted with Stockholm, its "air of distrust" and the politics and pomposity of his superiors, colleagues and people in general. With the new coterie of scientists emerging on the scene, he becomes outdated and turns inward, returning in his mind to times past -- to the thrill of new discovery and to his keen affinity with nature.  Admitting he is "not the jolliest of fellows, seldom in good humour and out of tune with the pastimes others most enjoy," he notes that
I transformed my life into a travel adventure. When I settled down in Stockholm, at the age of thirty I was regarded as an elderly man with the best of his life behind him. Not even in the deepest Karoo have I felt so lonely. Not much has happened in my life, except a worsening financial situation.  

Part III details Sparrman's life as physician to the poor, as well as meeting and developing a relationship with Lotta, who will spur him on to possibly the greatest discovery of his life: 
What was spontaneous activities, experiments and research, had narrowed to a single corridor where the doors were all too easily recognizable, and chance was an unwelcome visitor. Then, miraculously, he had lost his footing and fallen head over heels in love.
The Journey of Anders Sparrman is, quite frankly, an amazing book. Not only is it an interesting story, but the author follows several themes throughout the novel without letting them slip through the cracks. As just one example, there is a constant juxtaposition between freedom and those who would suppress it that plays out in different situations and across different time periods.  Wästberg founded the Swedish Section of Amnesty International and was "deeply involved" in the fight against apartheid, so it is not surprising to find his devotion to the ongoing cause of freedom running throughout the story.

The real Anders Sparrman comes through most clearly when the author makes use of his journal writings and letters, offering the reader an attempt at understanding the complexities of this long-forgotten man. These writings were most beneficial, especially in  the last two parts of the book,  in helping to clarify sections of Wästberg's portrayal of Sparrman that were often a bit distant, vague or sometimes cold.  At the same time, I have to say that Wästberg's descriptions of natural phenomena were incredibly well written, and that his love of Africa became evident with every word he wrote about the country. The scene of Anders and Immelman out in the Karoo is one I will likely never forget.

I  enjoyed this novel and I recommend it, but it does take some time to get into where the story is going and at times it is necessary to rely on Sparrman's journals and letters to get a handle on where the author is taking his character.  I loved Part I, only really began to appreciate the direction of the story during Part II, and was not greatly impressed with the conversations between Lotta and Sparrman in Part III.  It's also definitely not a book for casual readers. There's just some indefinable quality about this novel that worked well for me -- perhaps it's my empathy for all of the underdogs of this world that made this story resonate. 

fiction from Sweden


  1. It sounds like you really loved the book, I'm not much for biographies myself.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I did indeed like the book, but it's definitely not a biography. I like biographies, but mainly of quirky people!


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