Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt

As a person who has had aquariums for over 20 years, I was eager to read this book about a fish that some consider the most expensive in the world. That would be the Asian Arowana. There are species of arowanas in other countries, but it’s the three colorations of the Asian;green, gold and red, which are the most valuable. As adults they can get to be 3 feet(a meter) long, with large scales and short barbels on their chin like a hipster soul patch.
Voigt became curious about this fish when she was accompanying a wildlife officer looking into exotic wildlife being kept in small apartments in NYC.On the contraband list is the arowana, which isn’t allowed to be imported to the U.S. or Australia. That led to a global trek to learn more about this prized fish. For that is a dichotomy of the Asian Arowana, it’s an endangered species which is being commercially bred. Breeding is big business across Asia, the fish farms have security similar to prisons.This isn’t hyperbole; breeders and pet shop owners have been kidnapped and murdered. One Malaysian parliament member received death threats to his fish. For this fish isn’t just a pet or decoration, it’s a status symbol as well, and often a macho one. One man told the author that women didn’t like the fish, that it’s something that appeals only to men. And people don’t just show them off at fish shows(similar to dog shows, only with tanks), but there is a flourishing business in cosmetic surgery on fishes’ eyes, jaws and fins, using diamond-cutting tools.
While some wild arowanas remain in remote rivers, they are increasingly rare, partly due to overfishing, but more so because much of their habitat has been destroyed, the jungles and rivers turned into oil palm farms, (which has become the modern scourge of wildlife). As the author learned more about the species, she became obsessed with seeing one in the wild. To this end, she set off on expeditions throughout Southeast Asia and then to South America, each trip more risky than the last. She took as her inspiration, Ida Pfeiffer, a Victorian widow who became an explorer and author after her children were grown. Only Voigt was not as judgmental of the people she met on her own travels. One trip was with Heiko Bleher, a photographer and fish expert who thinks he knows more than Jacques Cousteau and had been arrested in Brazil for trying to smuggle specimens out of the country. He was just one of the memorable people featured in the narrative. And that was part of the appeal of this book, which was part adventure story, part natural history journal and throughout it all, immensely interesting. I think even people who don’t particularly like fish would still find it intriguing, simply for the amazing experiences she had over the course of writing this fascinating book.

Scribner 2016 336 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1451678949

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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