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Book Review: An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

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PAUL SPENCER SOCHACZEWSKI has a preoccupation with another man. His name is Wallace, and he died a century ago. “He is an insistent presence,” writes American author Paul in his latest book of “camp.re conversations” with the man; “a biographical version of malaria or athlete’s foot or the smell of durian on my hands…”

Alfred Russel Wallace was a Brit of many talents. Dubbed a naturalist, explorer, geographer, biologist, and anthropologist, he is perhaps best known for having proposed a theory of evolution to his chum Charles (Darwin) a few months before Darwin presented his findings to the scientific world. Darwin became an instant sensation in London, while Wallace picked up his butterfy net for another day of exploring in Southeast Asia.

Paul, like a loyal friend, does carry a dash of resentment towards Darwin for swooping the glory (although Wallace didn’t during his lifetime), but he doesn’t let it dominate the exploration of Wallace’s interesting life that makes up the majority of his newly published book.

Just as Wallace was before him, Paul is an explorer, and the book charts Paul’s journeys along the trails that Wallace walked so many lifetimes ago in Southeast Asia. Just as interesting as it is to learn more about Wallace through direct quotes and the words of Paul, so does the author paint glorious pictures of some of the most remote and exotic locations in Indonesia, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsular and provides the reader, little by little, an insight into the intriguing author himself.

Paul was just 22 when he first arrived in Borneo. He had hopped from University into the US Peace Corps, more to avoid the Vietnam war than see the world. The world, however, grabbed him and refused to let go. “Borneo!” he remembers, channelling the 22-year-old, “How exotic was that? I loved that there was nature, that people helped each other, and they were welcoming to a foreigner who had just popped into their midst.”

From Borneo, Paul ventured to Singapore, where an advertising job topped up his coffers before his move to Indonesia, and the subsequent years were spent travelling the country and the region in sheer delight at what he found. “What kept me in Asia so long,” he explains in his book, “was that every morning I would wake up knowing that I would see something that I might never be able to explain.”

This is too modest a statement, as Paul had been explaining his experiences through the written word long before he started travelling. Since first earning US$10 from an article on Roman coins at the age of 15, Paul has been putting pen to paper. He has numerous articles and books to his name, and currently works as an author and writing coach, dividing his time between Geneva and Bangkok.

Despite his wealth of experience, Paul admits that this recent book didn’t come easy. “It took me some 30 years to write,” admits Paul. “I had written a complete draft in 1992, but it didn’t hold together.” He has certainly cracked it now, and the travel and biography elements are entwined with interrogation of pressing issues that both men worry/ied about.

“Many chapters in the book look at environmental issues,” explains Paul, who is himself very nervous about the way the world is being destroyed. “Arrogance and greed combine to first diminish the importance of nature…and then set up a structure in which [nature] is wantonly destroyed,” Paul laments.

The environment may be a hot topic now, but in Wallace’s time his concerns about nature earned him the reputation as being a bit unconventional, along with his “views on the importance of women in creating an advanced society.” The more you read, the more you can see why Paul has been charmed and intrigued by this “bundle of contradictions,” who was both “a scientist and a believer in spirits, a hard-nosed hunter who shot 17 orang utans and a soppy surrogate father to an orang-utan baby he had orphaned.”

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Wallace spent eight years of his life trailing, penniless, some 14,000 miles around Southeast Asia. His reward? 125,660 specimens and a sense of contentment. An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles is both the title of Paul’s book and one of the many things that drove his inspiring muse onwards to change the scienti.c world forever. Darwin may have seized the glory but, thanks to Paul, the world can now get reacquainted with his oft-overlooked chum, who played no small part in extending mankind’s knowledge of the natural world.

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An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles: Campfire Conversations with Alfred Russel Wallace on People and Nature based on Common Travel in the Malay Archipelago,The Land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise was published at the end of 2012 and is available in good book shops for RM45. Learn more about author Paul Spencer Sochaczewski on www.sochaczewski.com.

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Source: The Expat January 2013

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