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Nashville Scene God's Favorite Creatures

Expatriate Nashvillian writes the book on the lowly cockroach

By Michael Sims

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  The name Richard Schweid will be familiar to many Nashvillians. Son of Adele and the late Bernie Schweid, the former owners of the late and lamented Mills' Bookstore, Richard has made a life in books. His first, Hot Peppers, came out in 1980 and has just been handsomely reprinted by North Carolina University Press. Then came Catfish and the Delta in 1992 and Barcelona in 1994.

Schweid lives in Barcelona, where he produces television documentaries for the Spanish equivalent of Frontline. He is also the Associated Press stringer for Barcelona, and he edits and co-publishes an English-language alternative newspaper in Barcelona that he compares to the Nashville Scene, for which he once wrote. And, remaining unpredictable, he has just published a new book, The Cockroach Papers.

Whatever you expect a book about cockroaches to be, this clever little volume will surprise you. It begins with the following passage in Italian: "Ogni scarrafone é bello a mamma sua." Translated, the line reads, "Every cockroach is beautiful to its mother."

Still, no matter how offbeat it sounds, The Cockroach Papers is not a humor book. There is plenty of wit in it, but primarily it is a serious if informal natural and cultural history of the most ancient, most widespread, and most reviled creature on Earth. Along the way, in the manner of John McPhee and other literary travelers with a scientific bent, Schweid visits several countries, recounting wonderful anecdotes about everything from tending bar in New York City to recovering from dysentery in Morocco. Like McPhee, he vividly portrays the human personalities involved in the story as well as the natural history that is the ostensible reason for the journey. We meet scientists, Mafia goons, exterminators, and a writer who smuggles cockroaches through customs.

At 53, Richard Schweid is slender, mustached, energetic, amusing, and endlessly curious. "The overall structure of the book," he explains, "is that each chapter starts with something from my own personal life. And they're from different places, from Nashville, New York, Nicaragua, Juarez. Each one introduces a certain aspect of cockroaches. And there's also a liberal sprinkling of literary references having to do with cockroaches." This format does more than keep the topic from becoming a dry recitation of factoids. Because Schweid is a fine writer with a ready fund of anecdotes about his world travels, he lifts the book to the level of literature--a hybrid of natural history, travel, and personal memoir.

It's not as if Schweid was fascinated by cockroaches and kept knocking on doors until someone liked his idea. "The genesis of this book," he explains, "is that I was in Brownsville, Texas, during a six-month stint on a newspaper there in 1995, and they have a lot of cockroaches in Brownsville. And I was thinking one morning that it would be an interesting book, because it would require spending a lot of time in a library, which I like; and everyone has a cockroach story, which I like the idea of too; and I was being pestered to death by large cockroaches."

Even then, Schweid didn't pursue the idea. "I went so far as to tell a friend of mine about it in New York once, and then I forgot about the whole thing." He laughs. "Then in late 1997, he wrote me that he'd been having dinner with the publisher of Four Walls Eight Windows, and they were talking about the stupidest ideas for books they'd ever heard, and he brought up my idea for the cockroach book--and this publisher liked it and wanted me to get in touch right away."

In The Cockroach Papers, Schweid points out how frequently the hated insects are used to symbolize the lowest of the low. In 1994, Hutu propaganda in Rwanda dehumanized Tutsis by constantly referring to them as cockroaches. John Gotti called the informant who betrayed him a cockroach, implying both that he was lowly and vile and that he was insignificant and could be squashed. The creatures have inspired folk remedies and have served as the basis of countless scientific experiments. Because they have survived practically unchanged since long before the dinosaurs, and because there are 5,000 known species and probably that many more to find, some wit once said that cockroaches must be God's favorite creatures.

A book is more than words and ideas; the physical artifact in itself should be pleasing. Four Walls Eight Windows is a small independent New York publisher that creates elegant volumes. The cover of The Cockroach Papers is handsomely designed on heavy boards with flaps, and the layout is pleasing, with one of the few readable sans-serif typefaces. Most intriguing of all, the edition features a flip-book section entitled "The Mating Ritual": Flip the pages, and you'll see two cockroaches approach each other, touch antennae, depart, chase, and mate.

Schweid's book joins such quirky, poetic volumes as Marais' The Soul of the White Ant or Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee on the small shelf of literary natural history. Commentators a century ago said that, in his last book, Charles Darwin rehabilitated the reputation of earthworms. Richard Schweid has performed the same service for cockroaches.

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