Book Review The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg and The Captain and “The Cannibal”: An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping, and the Broadway Stage by James Fairhead
by Fredrik Sjöberg, translated by Thomas Teal, Pantheon Books/Random House, 278 pages
If there’s a season to get worked up about bugs, it is now, which makes this a good time to read The Fly
Trap, written by Fredrik Sjöberg and translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. A translation can sometimes feel like you are seeing — to quote the Bible or the title of an Ingmar Bergman film — through a glass darkly. But Teal’s sparkling prose brings Sjöberg almost as close as if he were conversing with you. In any event, the language of flies is universal.
The hoverfly, which Sjöberg collects on a small island in the sea, is not just any fly. These flies mimic bees, most notably bumblebees, and “can easily achieve several hundred wing beats per second.” They fly by so fast, the average person can’t tell if they are hymenoptera with four wings, such as wasps and bees, or two-winged flies.
Occasionally, the author references one too many Swedish entomolgists who may be unknown to American readers, which begins to sound provincial, but mostly he lands on solid ground. Sjöberg writes about one entomologist who had 60,000 flies in his collection. This staggering number caused me to wonder if fly collectors can have a negative impact on ecosystems. In the past, orchid collectors have driven certain species of orchids into extinction and butterfly collectors have done the same disservice to butterflies. Flies, one imagines, exist in more robust numbers than orchids or butterflies. Still, how much collecting is done for the collector’s ego and how much for scientific purposes?
One of the pleasures of Sjöberg’s book is that he honestly explores the psychological motives behind collecting and acknowledges it can be a fetish to reduce anxiety. If you can’t see yourself raving about flies, this book is still appealing because of its philosophical reach, which stretches not only to the psyche of collectors and explorers, but also, say, to a short story by D.H. Lawrence (“The Man Who Loved Islands”).
The fly trap referred to in the book’s title is an invention of Swedish entomologist René Malaise. Sjöberg, a veteran user of this trap, at first takes some puzzling detours into Malaise’s work and life. Malaise spent his early career in a remote part of the Soviet Union — Kamchatka — enduring endless blizzards and hardships. Later, he became a museum entomologist and, in addition to an ill-fated sojourn into geology, he extended his collecting to include paintings, among them a Rembrandt, which was most likely a copy. Sjöberg’s ruminations come full circle when he reveals that Malaise was an “incurable optimist.” When he had his final heart attack, Malaise called a hospital ambulance. “It’s said that he lay at the front of the helicopter’s glass bubble, dying, and talked with beaming delight and almost lyrical euphoria about all the islands they passed, down there beneath them in the glittering sea. It was all over and he knew it.”
Perhaps Sjöberg also aspires to optimism, which might explain why he scoffs at environmentalists who suggest that some life on planet Earth could be hurtling toward extinction. “They’re of the ecological persuasion, if I may be pardoned the expression — gentle flagellants who hunker down beside their ill-smelling compost piles and rest easy in the certainty that much of life on earth has run its course.” Sjöberg regrets how tourists on the island misunderstand what he does when they see him catching flies on a roadside, but it must be said he’s not beneath stereotyping those concerned about our impact on the planet.
While it’s clear that Sjöberg knows his flies, it would help if he elaborated more on his scientific pursuits, if any, beyond capturing all the species of hoverflies on his island for “beauty,” “joy,” or ownership. Instead, he gleefully traps flies (and other insects who happen to fly into his trap), and he keeps handy doses of cyanide or chloroform to finish the job. There’s another reason he’s so enamored of Malaise. The Malaise trap works beautifully for him — it captures an enormous number of insects.
I try not to pay attention to endorsements, which are ubiquitously tacked on to books these days. This has become something of a corrupted activity — a way for writers’ friends or mentors to high-five them. But the following words by Tomas Tranströmer, a Nobel Prize-winner in literature, gave me pause: “I often return to The Fly Trap, it remains close to my heart. The minute observations from nature reveal sudden insights into one’s life. Sometimes I almost think that he wrote it for me.”
After reading this book, I understood why Tranströmer made such a heartfelt observation. If Sjöberg doesn’t talk as much about hoverflies as you might expect, it’s because his book is as much about life as about entomology.