The Journey of Anders Sparrman: A Biographical Novel by Per Wästberg

15/05/10, The Times

Very few, if any, of the fifty books of Per Wästberg, the Chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, have been translated into English. How great a loss that is to the insular English-only world can only be guessed at, much as the submerged mass of an iceberg can be imagined from its visible part, when one reads his latest novel, The Journey of Anders Sparrman. Subtitled ‘A biographical novel’, the book achieves something quietly innovative and original: it takes a real figure, the eighteenth-century Swedish explorer, doctor, naturalist and abolitionist, Anders Sparrman (1748-1820), and composes a work that cleaves closely to a biography but with all the imaginative freedom and prose style of a work of fiction. The result is difficult to define, closer, paradoxically, to both biography and fiction than that hybrid term would lead us to believe, yet slipping away from the edges of vision if one tries to see it as one or the other. Not a single event in this life is fictive yet the textures, details, tone, the exact qualia of experiences are all intensely imagined in a way biographies are not at liberty to do.

And what a life it is! A disciple of Linnaeus, the great taxonomist, Sparrman travels first to the East Indies and China as ship’s doctor, collecting plant and animal specimens unknown to Europe. Then he joins Captain Cook, on the Resolution, on his voyage to the Antarctic, which is followed by a journey to the interior of the Western Cape. This journey into the wilds of the karoo provides some of the most electric pages in the book, describing with exquisite attentiveness the landscape, the flora and the fauna but also the horrifying canker of slavery, seen firsthand. The return to Sweden in the late 1770s was always going to be a great anticlimax for him, despite being appointed the curator of the Cabinet of Natural History of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and he becomes a victim of pettiness and bureaucratic corruption but personal salvation arrives in the form of a late-blossoming love that sustains him for over twenty years. He dies a bankrupt, laid to rest in the anonymity of a common grave.

Alternating between first-person accounts in Sparrman’s own voice, a substantial portion of which is sewn together from his letters and his published work, and a third-person narration from Sparrman’s point of view, the book is a subtle, breathtaking achievement. As historical fiction, it effortlessly and magisterially prises open worlds unknown. As prose, it achieves a luminosity and pared precision that is the true domain of poetry. As a novel, it is a work of assured moral energy. Make no mistake, this is a great European novel.