The Eloquence of the Sardine & The Dragon Behind the Glass Book reviews

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We review two new books for your literary pleasure

The Eloquence of the Sardine 

The Secret Life of Fish & Other Underwater Mysteries

Author: Bill Francois
Pages: 192
RRP: £16.99 (hardback)
ISBN: 9781472134035
More info: littlebrown.co.uk
Reviewed by: Nathan Hill

The Eloquence of the Sardine, as implied by the name, is not a book that focuses on any particular niche of the aquarium hobby. Neither husbandry nor instruction is to be found within its pages. Instead, it is a wider exploration of those fish that have shaped the world, those that have changed history, those that have given rise to great myths (such as the origins of the fabled Golden Fleece). It is exploration, the author seeking out fish both figuratively through concepts, as well as literally and in the flesh.

The beauty of the book is its vibrant prose and skilled structure that manages to convey a continuous sense of holism throughout. Francois manages to elegantly weave a story that is part autobiographical, part investigative and observational, launching from largely relatable nostalgic moments (though his French ancestry means that some of his romanticised memories and lived experiences differ subtly from my own) to anecdotes, trivia and first-hand accounts of fishing.

The veracity of the claims made is a mixed bag. At times, the tales seem concrete and well grounded, while other moments appear to delve into the apocryphal — tales of jailers limiting the amount of lobster they could feed prison inmates, for example, on the grounds of the meal was classed as a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ are less then likely to have really happened. Yet these tales, and many others, build up a wider tapestry of aquatic curiosities and retain the reader’s interest from page to page.  

But then the book isn’t claiming to be an encyclopaedic reference. It is the author’s attempt to organise his thinking and his memories as eloquently as possible, and in that, Francois succeeds. 

To read ‘The Eloquence of the Sardine’ is to be put through a clothes wringer of emotions. There are upbeat moments set against tales of treachery — the Orca whale ‘Old Tom’ being reneged on a gentlemen’s agreement that transcended species. There is the interplay of humans and the sea, such as the stories of fishermen using ‘tamed’ remoras. There is drama in the night time involving trespass and clandestine liaisons with a Zander. And there is sobering tragedy, as grounded in the data — thousands of tonnes of Anchovy scooped from the water to be ground down for chicken food. 

As stories go, it has everything I want, and unlike other books of this ilk it manages something unique — it opens and closes cleanly and concisely. Of course, there is indulgence in the writing (all writers are vainglorious, speaking as one myself), and at times the situations feel a little private, maybe even idiosyncratic. On a few occasions I felt like an interloper rather than a guest, but this did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the work. 

If you appreciate well-crafted prose with a lively lexicon, and if you’re a fan of learning facts and fables that likely won’t be of use for anything outside of a pub quiz, then this is definitely one to try. 

  • A wondrous adventure! 
  • Not exactly aquarium related.

The Dragon Behind the Glass

Author: Emily Voigt
Pages: 336
RRP: £12.99 at Blackwell’s
ISBN: 9781451678956
More info: https://www.simonandschuster.com
Reviewed by: Joost de Leeuw

If one fish turned into a commodity, it is Scleropagus formosus, the Asian arowana (or Dragon fish – arowana is an Amazonian word). It is big, ancient and tough-looking, but what started the journalist Emily Voigt on a journey around the world is what this fish inspires in humans. 

The Dragon Behind the Glass opens with the murder of a Malaysian breeder, which turns out to be far from an isolated incident. Dragon fish are big business and the arowana in-crowd is like the cast of Netflix’s Tiger King.  

Voigt’s quest starts in safe Singapore, where Kenny the Fish (‘a big fish in a small pond’) runs a publicly listed fish farm. He explains that the words ‘long yu’ mean ‘dragon fish’, but carry far more significant connotations of luck, longevity and affluence. Asian businessmen pay tens of thousands of dollars for the ‘best’ specimens, especially the rare Super reds. 

In a curious episode, an infamously secretive arowana trader invites Voigt to share a ride with one of his top buyers from Japan. The trader intends to use her as a lobbyist. Asian arowana are illegal to import and sell in the United States, as it is an endangered species in the wild, despite its abundance on fish farms. (My use of the word ‘despite’ is exactly the kind of thing that could spark debate among conservationists: legal captive-breeding of endangered species can lead to ‘laundering’ of wild-caught fish. Effective conservation of biodiversity is a sub-theme throughout the book.) Who really needs a lobbyist, though, is newbie and outsider Voigt herself (‘I thought of pet fish as one step up from potted plants’) if she wants to penetrate to the remote Sentarum lakes of Borneo where the Super red arowana supposedly still lives.

It is rather priceless, then, that she meets Heiko Bleher, eminent culmination of a true aquarium dynasty and honorary namesake of at least eight fish. Voigt runs into him at a trade show and charms him just enough to be noncommittally invited on a field trip to the wrong continent. ‘He said he would take me to Sentarum himself if he didn’t have back-to-back expeditions planned in Australia, the Philippines and Iran.’ 

Without Bleher, it takes Voigt three attempts to actually reach the Sentarum lakes, which are ‘roughly the color and temperature of warm onion soup’ and full of gourami and rasbora, as well as saltwater crocodile. The former headhunters inhabiting the region are accommodating enough, but do tell Voigt that no arowana were caught in recent years — regrettably for them, since a live specimen could fetch around $2,500 and finance a new house or boat — except once by accident by an American tourist fishing for snakeheads. 

Through Bleher, Voigt gets in touch with an even more prolific and nomadic ichthyologist, Tyson Roberts. Roberts is temporarily stranded in Panama, but suggests Voigt head to Tenasserim in southern Myanmar, where a whole ‘new’, undescribed species of Scleropagus may be waiting to be put on IUCN’s Red List (or, depending on your views on conservation, their ‘treasure map for commercial collectors’). 

Among biotope enthusiasts, Myanmar is nowadays mostly associated with Lake Inle, where the popular aquarium fishes Danio margaritatus and Sawbwa resplendens are endemic. Lake Inle is a picturesque mountain lake halfway the standard tourist loop through Myanmar, far from both the ocean and the great Irrawaddy river. 

Tenasserim, the southernmost province squeezed in between Thailand and the Andaman Sea, must be a different place altogether. A ‘delightful tropical backwater’, according to one website. ‘Please stop killing us. We’re so poor; we have nothing’, according to another. Roberts had managed to get there before, but clandestinely from Thailand, ‘with the help of rebel Karen boys armed with Kalashnikovs, who carefully picked their way through the jungle to avoid land mines’. Not a walk in the park, but if a giant undiscovered fish could be hiding somewhere… Voigt gets surprisingly far in this notoriously inaccessible country, but cannot in the end keep up with the intrigue that surrounds her and the trip ends in mystery.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is first of all a very entertaining line-up of brilliant, extravagant, unreliable and oddly-often undressed fishkeeping legends. It provides insight into ongoing scientific debates on species identification and conservation. But it is also a first-rate travel book, to be read alongside Emma Larkin, Redmond O’Hanlon and Alfred Russell Wallace. It should perhaps be advertised as such. 

  • Outstanding journalism.
  • Contains death and peril.