On Emily Voigt’s ‘The Dragon Behind the Glass’

Voigt’s study on the popularity of the arowana fish is both autobiographical and historical, a lesson in the tenderness of art and science coexisting.


Emily Voigt
Creative Nonfiction
336 pages
Hardcover
Also available in eBook formats
ISBN 9781451678949
First Edition
Scribner
New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Available HERE
$26.00


I stopped to look at the row of pure white arowana swimming in ghostly parallel, like marble replicas of fish that had been dead for millennia, and asked the guard how much they were worth. He shrugged and said, “To someone who doesn’t like them, they’re worth nothing.”
(Chapter 4 — Aquarama, p. 55)

Despite being an avid fiction reader, there might occasionally be a nonfiction book that catches my eye, usually on a non-conventional topic as opposed to yet another book on a well-known political figure or historical event. When I walked past The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish in a bookstore, it was its simple but promising cover that attracted my attention, instantly leading to a question: what is the world’s most coveted fish? Knowing next to nothing about the aquarium hobby, never having owned a fish myself, the promise of intrigue and adventure the byline elicited was quite enticing.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is a perfect example of nonfiction that is capable of balancing the informative with the narrative, spinning a delightful narrative that conveys the sense of adventure without emphasizing the fact that you, the reader, are sitting in the comfort of a chair as opposed to trudging through the Amazon like Voigt. The book follows the rise to popularity of the arowana fish, coveted in Asia as a symbol of luck, particularly the Super Red variety which is sought by the Chinese. Voigt presents both the scientific backstory of the fish and parallels it directly with her own travels around the world, her correspondences with famous ichthyologists, as well as some fascinating and well-integrated digressions about other wildlife and the history of the aquarium hobby as a whole.

Voigt’s quest that initially begins out of curiosity quickly takes a turn for obsession, the risk and difficulty factor constantly rising as she is determined to first travel in search of the Super Red, then to chase after a living specimen of a mysterious and arguably new species of arowana, and finally to end up in the depths of the Amazon to find the less-prestigious yet still fascinating silver variant. Voigt acknowledges this slip in her motives, raising the question of what it is about the fish that leads people to act irrationally, a sentiment that is captured almost at the very beginning in the words of Lieutenant Fitzpatrick:

“I think that a lot of the people who have these animals are interested in nature, and that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s just they’re going about it the wrong way.”
(Chapter 1— The Pet Detective, p. 15).

It’s a soft side to journalism that I haven’t seen yet when it comes to nonfiction, particularly books on biology, which tend to focus much more on assembling and regurgitating facts that, however fascinating, nonetheless remain facts. Voigt instead gives science a more human touch, reminding readers that a journalist, too, has emotions and can be swayed in a particular direction. In fact, her own voice is so dominant in the book that it tiptoes the line between being both autobiographical and historical, a reminder that science doesn’t merely exist in the past that textbooks have immortalized. Rather, it continues to exist and to be made right this very second, both by the scientists who make the discoveries, the journalists who document them, and the masses who respond to these new findings.

I didn’t expect as much tenderness from The Dragon Behind the Glass as I ended up finding, but it was a discovery that was both pleasant and welcome. It was an example of art and science coexisting within the pages of one book, emotions and rational thinking woven into one fascinating narrative that becomes not so much focused on the fish itself as on how humans interact with nature, and the lessons we should be taking out of it in our correct society.