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Books: Literary equivalent of a platypus

Marina Warner on a compendium of science that bursts dazzlingly from a poet's imagination; Fishing for Amber: A Long Story by Ciaran Carson Granta pounds 12.99
The Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson has dedicated this exuberant, idiosyncratic and bravura performance, Fishing For Amber, to his father, William Carson/ Liam Mac Carrain, a Belfast postman who joined the Esperanto movement. Esperanto must be the most benign of utopian, universalising endeavours, and it inspires his son Ciaran to write some of the tenderest and funniest passages in this book. But the dream of a synthetic discourse and of universal harmony underlies Ciaran Carson's achievement here in another way. Fishing for Amber is local, provincial, and ethnic in the strongest and best sense, but wildly cosmopolitan in its polymathic excursuses on disciplines and stores of knowledge far and wide.

Carson remembers his father's Irish storytelling, his yarns about red- herring fishing fleets and Dutch dairy farmers sailing to the moon "in argosies of hot-air drifters, there to mine the lunar cheese deposits". His book often echoes this kind of madcap blarney, but it lays it down in a multi-track, polyphonic babel of storytelling voices, drawn from Celtic legends of the Sidhe or fairy folk, Greek and Latin metamorphoses, natural science, optics, botany, hagiography - in short from a lifetime's reading. It's also an extended, vibrant piece of writing - a prose poem, rattled off at high speed but sharply detailed, with every word chosen for its spring, echo, texture, and the whole glowing (amber-like) from a pervasive mood of delight at the variety of the world. Meditating on the sources of argot, or thieves' cant, Ciaran Carson lists the cast in a kind of delirium: "Picture the roads and the inns thronged with tinkers, tooth-drawers, pedlars, ostlers, carters, porters, horse-gelders and horse- leeches, idiots, apple-squires, broomsmen, bawds, chive-fencers, kinchen- coves, soothsayers and sow-gelders ..." and so it goes on, irrepressibly, through "vampers", "waste-butts" and "bosom-buddy bugger-lugs".

Chapter headings from "Antipodes" to "Zoetrope" by way of "Ergot" and "Foxglove" and "Nemesis" and "Opium", give the dictionary flavour of Carson's browsing; the book is even ornamented with vignettes from a l927 illustrated encyclopaedia. Amber itself doesn't have a chapter to itself, but studs the text throughout, a string of beads told off at intervals: we learn that "electricity" comes from the Greek for amber, elektrum, because the Greeks noticed it produces static when rubbed; that one Demonstratus declared lynxes pissed amber, the males the tawny variety, the females more lemony. In one of his typical fugues, Carson whirls us from the use of amber as a prized varnish for paintings, then, via vernis (French) and berniz (Spanish) to Queen Berenice who cut off her golden hair (her amber hair) and offered it to the temple in return for her husband's safe return, whence it was transformed into a constellation to honour her faithfulness, the Coma Berenices. "So, when a hair strays from the stock of an artist's brush to flaw the application of paint or varnish, it is known as a berenice". And all this in one short paragraph.

In the wake of Tales from Ovid, several myths of rape and shape-shifting are quite solemnly retold here; but then by leaps of imagination, surrealist happenstance, and oblique chains of association, Carson can't sustain the earnestness, and he keys the classics into a much more arcane body of lore: his chapter on Jacinth, or the properties and associations of the bluebell, opens with Hyacinthus, the youth whom Apollo loved - and killed by mistake while playing discus together (like frisbee champions on Muscle Beach in Venice, California); it then weaves to St Hyacinthus, who began life as Jacko Odravag, was converted when he witnessed St Dominic resurrect a rider who'd been thrown from his horse, and became the most ardent of proselytising Inquisitors, ranging from Muscovy to Tibet and back again. Lithuania was one of his more successful missions, and he's the country's patron saint; the well of St Hyacinth is fished for amber pebbles on his feastday.

A dominant track of the book, ravelled into all the fairy tale telling and yarning, takes up the social history of the Netherlands during the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Carson introduces a garrulous old character, a Dutch sea captain, to tell tales that extol the civic harmony and energy of that culture. He talks of a mermaid who paints portraits of fish as yet undiscovered, but real-life figures, like Vermeer and Jan Steen, also make vivid appearances. Carson's personal excitement really shows though when he turns to innovators in the pre-eminent Dutch field of optics. The consequences of seeing in a new way, through new instruments, grips him, for it clearly offers a model for his own vision of writing. In 1674, a draper in Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoeck, first used his invention, a microscope, to look at a glass of lakewater. He wasn't appalled to find thousands of creatures swimming and wriggling in it. He found their teeming independence "a vision of the ideal republic".

Carson skims on, like one of his ebullient Dutchmen in a painting of a great frieze. The Dutch are also much cherished here for their love of smoking - Carson extols tobacco as a peace-maker, a sedative, a means of communication and concord: "When you have had a quarrel with your brother, you may wish to kill him. Sit down and smoke a pipe ... When the bowl is empty you will be ready to go to your brother and forgive him, or ask him to forgive you." Could this be so? That peace pipes work? That what all those negotiators should do is sit down and smoke together?

Fishing for Amber is a dictionary, an encyclopaedia of natural history, a handbook of simples, a calendar of saints, an inventory of a wunderkammer, a quiet riposte to the anti-smoking lobby, and an anthology of tales collected in the field. Eluding all limits of genre, neither altogether fiction nor faction, travel nor memoir, it belongs to a growing literary species: books that are simply acts of imagination. For their forerunners, we must skip back to Plutarch, and to Petrus Comestor ("the Gobbler") and thence to Montaigne and Francis Bacon and on to the Borges of A Book of Fantastic Beasts and Calvino; today, Fishing for Amber keeps company with W G Sebald and with Robert Calasso (though less high-toned). Most recently, Celeste Olalquiaga's beguiling study of aquatic fantasies of underwater cities and the like, in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of Kitsch Experience (Bloomsbury pounds 20), has entered this expanding category. Ciaran Carson has hatched the literary equivalent of a platypus - an unclassifiable and engaging marvel.