To say that The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg is a tale of two halves would transcend cliché. Rarely will one encounter such an apparently complete transformation of a character mid-way through a story, and even more rarely will one encounter such a thoroughly credible transformation.
This is a story about a scientist, a botanist explorer of the eighteenth century. Anders Sparrman was Swedish and was raised in a straight-laced society. He studied with Linnaeus at a time when a thoroughly new notion of biological species was emerging from beneath the stone laid by the creationism of Christian doctrine. A sense of discovering empiricism pervades this story of a real historical figure. The result is neither biography nor fiction, whilst simultaneously combining elements of both. Events are drawn directly from Sparrman’s life, as recorded in his own journals, but dialogue and encounters between characters are created to embroider the backcloth of fact. This may sound like conventional historical fiction, but the sense of biography in this work is always strong enough to dominate.
Anders Sparrman’s story is told chronologically, a device that only magnifies the eventual transformation of his life. We follow him to sea as a young man. We accompany him on board Captain James Cooke’s voyages of so-called discovery. One feels that Sparrman’s work in natural history is where the real discoveries are taking place, whilst Cooke’s more grandiose and historically more consequential claims might just be a tad overstated. Throughout, Anders Sparrman comes across as a dedicated, perhaps rather staid, sober and conventional documenter of experience. His quest for truth seems nothing less than single-minded, perhaps myopic, and his thirst for detail sometimes seems to exclude any view of a bigger picture.
Back at home in Sweden, he moves from one apparently well done but unappreciated job to another. He takes over the management of an institution and attempts reform, and thus makes enemies and friends, as might be expected. As the years pass, his memories of and achievements within his years of seafaring and travel begin to fade.
But then he discovers sex. She is not particularly young, beautiful or desirable, apparently. Lotta and Anders, we are told, choose one another not because of their merits, their appearance or anything else we might usually associate with breeding partners. Rather, in their case, it was a mutual sense of desperation that brought them together. It is as if both of them clutched at and grasped an opportunity life had resolved to deny them. And then, without qualification, they took a firm grip on their opportunity and went for it.
Anders Sparrman seems suddenly reincarnated. At least his relation to biology is redrawn, since he suddenly transformed from observer to participant, from the narrow end of the microscope onto the slide, so to speak. A bland and probably predictable life suddenly blossoms by virtue of involvement, and simultaneously the empiricism that discovered becomes personal experience that feels and creates.
The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg thus becomes a difficult kind of reading experience. Lulled into a sense of predictable safety by the devotion and dedication to its subject, we spend most of the book taking risks at sea and in far-off lands without sensing danger. And then, in the comfort of our own home, we are suddenly propelled into a vivid universe of emotional and sexual fulfilment that is as threatening as a warm hearth, but literally takes the breath away. The Journey of Anders Sparrman, by Per Wästberg is a remarkable experience, both as a book and a life.