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

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

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.

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