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Per Wästberg, Anders Sparrmans resa - en biografisk roman (Anders Sparman's Journey - A Biographical Novel)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2008. ISBN: 9789146218920

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2009:1

English Translation: The Journey of Anders Sparrman, translated by Tom Geddes. Granta Books, 2010. ISBN 9781847081308.

Anders Sparrman was by all accounts one of Linné’s most inscrutable apostles, and after reading Per Wästberg’s biographical novel, one is left with a sense that he may have suffered from a long-term clinical depression. Part of Sparrman’s disaffection seems to have stemmed from his intuition that he was living in a transition period for scientific research – rendering his research inconsequential. His was also a time in which Romanticism first began to play havoc with the placid self-confidence of the Augustan era. Sparrman’s rejection of slavery eventually defined his whole view of modern society, steeped in cruelty and disregard for all disadvantaged people – whether in Africa or Sweden. Conceptually, the book divides into three sections.The first is an evocative account of Sparrman’s frugal childhood in a country parsonage in Sparrsätra, outside Uppsala.The second describes Sparrman’s overseas journeys, first to China as a naval doctor and later to the Cape of Good Hope to collect samples on behalf of Carl Linné. Not long after, he sailed to the Antarctic and the Marquesas Islands with Captain Cook on the Resolution. Later in 1787 Sparrman went to West Africa specifically to study the institution of slavery. For almost twenty years he was in charge of the Royal Academy of Science’s natural history collections in Stockholm. Some 1300 items of flora and fauna collected by him are still found in Swedish museums. But in the course of his life he gradually lost interest in stuffed animals and transferred his energies to more direct and practical contributions to human welfare. Weighed down by a growing disillusion with the world, Sparrman finally retreated into obscurity as a so-called ‘fattigläkare’ (a medical doctor serving the poor) in Stockholm.This period in his life forms the third thematic section of the book.Wästberg’s titular reference to Sparrman’s ‘journey’ is also meant as an oblique pointer to his most significant journey of all – the one that led him to love. The final two decades of his life were spent blissfully alongside Charlotta Hedvig Fries, an impoverished seamstress. On his death Sparrman was found to be utterly penniless, his assets insufficient even to settle his liabilities. Most of his papers and letters were later lost, and so one wonders how much of this novel is actually based on Wästberg’s research, and how much on his own mechanisms as a fiction writer. Wästberg writes touchingly on the subject’s childhood, and also with particular assurance and transcendence about Sparrman’s African journeys – as readers would expect after the acclaim greeting the second part of Wästberg’s memoirs, Vägarna till Afrika (The Ways to Africa) published in 2007.The reader is slightly disgusted (but also secretly delighted) to hear of impromptu dinners on the African savannah consisting of grilled elephant’s trunk, or boiled rhinoceros tongue. The trauma of slavery is shown in disturbing detail; in fact, the reader would be hard-pressed to find another modern account (although many of Wästberg’s observations are borrowed directly from his subject) written with so much passion and empathy. In a sense, the author is extending a complicit nod to Sparrman – one Africa traveller recognising the piquancy of another, whose descriptions were written more than two hundred years ago. Whenever the factual background is clear, Wästberg is able to improvise with occasionally striking fictional additions. Unfortunately the last hundred pages of the book are considerably less interesting from a historical perspective, and also from a fictional one. Biographical novels can be very illuminating – consider Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions – but the difficulty lies in striking the right balance between fact and fiction. One supposes that Wästberg would have had far less biographical material to draw on when researching Sparrman’s last sequestered years as a doctor serving the poor – during which time he more or less rejected all preferment and social advance. There is something lugubrious about Wästberg’s descriptions of Sparrman and Charlotta’s relationship – as if their lives were spent constantly and morosely reflecting upon life, eternity and the higher purpose of things. Wästberg’s attempts to sketch their supposedly passionate sexual relationship are also slightly extraneous. One comes away feeling that although this book has many moments of brilliance, there is something lopsided about its overall shape, purpose and achievement.

Also by Per Wästberg

  • Fortifikationer (Fortifications). Reviewed by Anne Born in SBR 2002:1.
  • Duvdrottningen (The Pigeon Queen and Other Stories). Reviewed by Joan Tate in SBR 1998:2.

Other reviews by Henning Koch

Other reviews in SBR 2009:1

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