The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt
Journalist Emily Voigt’s first book is a thrilling deep dive into the strange and dangerous world of the Asian arowana or ‘dragon fish’. Inspired by a meeting with a pet detective tracking an illegal alligator sale in the Bronx, Voigt sets out to learn more about the world’s most expensive aquarium fish and make sense of the cult that surrounds it. Renowned as a symbol of prestige, power and luck, from Malaysia to Wall Street, the arowana is the kind of fish people will even kill for. As Voigt writes, it’s also ‘one of the most dramatic examples of a modern paradox’ – bred by the hundreds of thousands in captivity, yet almost extinct in its wild habitats.
Voigt’s efforts see her traversing 15 different countries over the course of years. She clambers into infested swamps at night, boats along the Içá – or Putumayo – river, and toys with the possibility of becoming a fish smuggler for the glory of discovering a new species. She findsher growing obsession with arowana bewildering given her own ambivalence towards the creature. At one point in the book she asks herself: ‘How much was I willing to risk to risk to go after a fish I didn’t even think was good-looking?’
The Dragon Behind the Glass is a smart and witty adventure tale, filled with fascinating information and characters, such as Heiko Bleher, the ‘Indiana Jones of the tropical fish industry’, the woman who attempted to smuggle an arowana and other fish into Australia under her skirt, and the herpetologist who wrote a guide to ‘the dangerously venomous snakes of Myanmar’ – only to die of snakebite in Myanmar himself.
At the centre of Voigt’s book lies our very human desire to ‘own’ a piece of wildness. As Voigt writes, ‘Fish have long been our last wild food and, together with reptiles and amphibians, our last wild pets.’ She writes about the impact of domestication on fish and does not spare herself her critique of the destruction this desire can cause. Reading this book, one cannot help hoping that the words of one Borneo tribal headman are true: ‘Arowana is just like a ghost – he can disappear. The arowana is not extinct but hiding.’
Bronte Coates is the digital content coordinator. She is also the prize manager of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.