Once upon a time I had wanted to find out why a pet fish was so irresistible that people smuggled it into the United States, risking their very liberty. Three and a half years and fifteen countries later, I was now in Brazil (possibly illegally) pursuing the fish myself. At some point, things had gotten out of hand.
Emily Voigt is a science and nature writer who got hooked by the arowana, an ugly but prized ornamental fish that’s farmed or caught for display in home aquariums. It sparks obsession among aquarium collectors who pay tens of thousands of dollars for one. She’d been awarded a Pulitzer travel grant and decided to use it to travel to the remote Asian and South American countries where rare arowana are caught in the wild and sold to collectors, often illegally.
A fascinating corner of narrative nonfiction is books that tell stories of obsession. Often these deal with collectible objects or creatures, my favorite being Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, one of the books that made me realize what great nonfiction is capable of. Since reading it I’m always keen to find something in the same vein – an obsession about something that I neither get nor would even consider as something worthy of fanaticism.
This seemed perfect. I’m not interested in fish, and if I had to guess, I would’ve thought some kind of koi would be the world’s most coveted one, not the unfortunate-looking arowana. (Google them, the book cover photo is definitely his best angle.) “The mouth was set in a deep harrumph of a frown like a bulldog’s,” as Voigt describes it. But as one collector sensibly explains, “A good fish…was whatever fish you liked best, regardless of marketing or fashion. ‘You have to form your own opinion about something to enjoy it. You have to define what is beautiful for yourself.’”
That’s part of why I’m drawn to these intense obsession stories – I’m curious about what others find so desirable. Voigt does great work in trying to get to the bottom of that too, providing plenty of cultural context for why the fish is so appealing plus anecdotal evidence in the stories of the people she interviews and travels with. Culturally, its dragon associations make the arowana valuable in East Asian countries where dragons have different symbolism than their western counterparts – symbols of luck and power instead of menacing fantasy villains. Add to that the coloring of some of the fish, like a brilliant red, with its positive associations of luck in Chinese culture, and some of the fish’s value becomes understandable.
As for its broader appeal into fanaticism, I know it’s unfair to keep comparing them, but by the end of The Orchid Thief I understood something more about obsession, here I never quite got there. Voigt gives considerable page space to the inner world of arowana collectors and it’s incredibly interesting, but I still felt distanced from what managed to grip her about this story.
“You’re stressed. You’ve been scolded by your boss. . . . Now just watch the fish.” His hand swam hypnotically through the air. “Watch the movement of the tail.”
I did find myself strangely transfixed by the rippling motion of the sinuous body. But I couldn’t imagine myself watching a fish for hours each night, as many hobbyists claim they do. Then again, I do not fit the profile of a typical aquarist much less an arofanatic. The aquarium hobby is traditionally male dominated, and keeping dragon fish especially so. “Arowana is for men,” Ng Huan Tong told me on his farm. “Women don’t like such a creature.” Another Malaysian described the species as an outlaw: “It’s a very aggressive fish. It’s a cowboy—like Billy the Kid.” He shot his fingers in the air and then called the arowana the “Ronald Reagan of fishes.”
During the course of her round-the-world journey, Voigt changes her own obsession several times – at first pursuing the Super Red, a rare and more attractive (that’s subjective) breed of the fish; later embarking on a quest for the batik arowana, which is possibly a new species; and finally, taking a possibly illegal trek through the Amazon with an adventurous, devil-may-care German ichthyologist, Heiko Bleher. Bleher figured in her story before their travel together – a flaky but adventurous collector and world traveler with a larger-than-life personality. The strength of the book was Voigt’s portrayals of some of these big personalities, shown through her interactions with them.
One of these characters is nicknamed “Kenny the Fish” and here’s his introduction as an example:
At the center of the glamorous world of Southeast Asian aquaculture reigned a flamboyant Singaporean tastemaker known as Kenny the Fish, a chain-smoking millionaire fond of posing nude behind strategically placed aquatic pets.
Voigt delves into the background research so it’s full of interesting factoids, like “The silver was the true arowana, a name that comes from the indigenous language group Tupí-Guaraní, from which we also get words such as jaguar and tapioca.”
This is one of those journalistic books that suffers from its author being a character in the story. It was necessary to some extent in that Voigt, like Orlean, marvels at the dedication of the quirky personalities she comes across in her research and pursuits. But some side forays into her own life are decidedly uninteresting, even though they seem included to show how the arowana obsession, first merely a journalistic interest, caught her up too. But they weren’t particularly believable, and the characters she meets and profiles were far more captivating.
Completely inexplicable and inexcusable was a mysterious story of a murder in Malaysia told in the prologue, ostensibly to rob an aquarium owner of his expensive arowana and certainly to hook readers. But it was never mentioned again. How was that even allowed by an editor? It was a sad but intriguing story with surely a lot more to it, why include it with no followup?
I did learn a lot, and it’s absolutely worth it for that. It’s not always easy to read – the narrative changes pace and plot often, and sometimes when you’re most interested in a thread of a story, perspective shifts to something new and I felt my interest wane again. It’s not a bad book by any means, I just wanted it to be better. Some parts were excellent, with intriguing science and biology, glimpses into exclusive organizations, elements of mystery; others were a slog through failed, disappointing travel plans and Voigt’s attempts to convince the reader that she was becoming obsessed too. 3/5
The Dragon Behind the Glass:
A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish
by Emily Voigt
published May 24, 2016 by Scribner