#1956Club: Romain Gary

When I first started reading Romain Gary (on the recommendations of the Gary fan and expert Emma), I thought that The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) was only tangentially and metaphorically about elephants. Which is ironic, because that is the trap into which most of the characters in the book fall. Or do they deliberately choose to misrepresent things, to pursue their own selfish aims?

This novel is one of the best-known by Romain Gary. It appeared in 1956 and won the Prix Goncourt, it was rapidly translated into English and it was made into a film directed by John Huston before the US audience had a chance to read it in translation. It has also been called one of the first explicitly ecological novels. It certainly is that, but it’s also about the human race itself, and saving what is best about humanity. Gary himself resisted interpreting the novel as an allegory, but then threw a spanner in the works: ‘The elephants are flesh and blood – just like human rights are.’

Set in post-WW2 colonial Africa, the book focuses on an idealistic Frenchman, Morel, who has come to Chad, still under French rule in the 50s, to crusade against the hunting and poaching of elephants. He tries at first to get everyone to sign a petition, but when that fails, he takes matters into his own hands and establishes a vigilante group, punishing hunters and traders in elephant ‘wares’. He manages to win over a few people, each one damaged by the past, who perhaps recognise their own helplessness and suffering in the plight of the elephants. The German nightclub hostess Minna was raped by Soviet soldiers at the end of the war, while Forsythe is a disgraced former major in the US army who fought in the Korean war. Morel himself was part of the French resistance and interned in a German labour camp for two years and the thought of elephants roaming free on the savannah was one of the things that kept him going. There is also an elderly Danish zoologist, Qvist, famous for his stand against whaling, who is perhaps the only one who joins him for purely ecological reasons.

What is most interesting about the book is that for the first third of the book we don’t catch a single glimpse of Morel in action, and even for the remainder of the book, we tend to see him through the eyes of others, who all have wildly conflicting views about him. Some are puzzled by his activism on behalf of animals and cannot believe that there isn’t a political, anti-government motive behind it. Others want to ally themselves with him and use his popularity to fight for African independence. Quite a few are amused by his naive idealism and predict (or even conspire) that he’ll not come to a good end:

Morel can be used as long as he remains a legend… Don’t accuse me of cynicism, but in all revolutionary movements, you have the inspired and vapoury idealists in the vanguard… but the realists, the ones who do the actual construction work, come afterwards slowly, inexorably. I’m telling you this because it’s essential that he not be caught alive. I like him well enough, he’s an innocent, but it’s better for everyone if he disappears in his full glory, in his legendary status.

Many are jaded and cynical beyond belief, but Morel’s uncompromising stance makes them question their own beliefs. There is an English colonel who is starting to wonder if the world view that he was raised into and that he inherited is based on a false assumption of basic human decency – which the atrocities of the Second World War have severely undermined. There is a colonial administrator who wonders if the human soul is even capable of altruism and heroism, believing that those few drops of humanity and purity only come out if you squeeze them like toothpaste. The Jesuit missionary is left to ponder on the purity of his own religious beliefs and whether they are in fact ‘civilising’ the natives through conversion to Christianity.

When we do hear Morel speaking directly, he tries repeatedly to disillusion those who believe he represents them: for him, it’s only about the elephants. ‘I don’t trust ideologies – they’re too big, take up too much space, and when you have elephants alongside…’ He doesn’t even seem to care if the land remains a colony or becomes independent, as long as the elephants are looked after.

Nationalism for the sake of it, which is what we are seeing everywhere at this moment in time, nationalism which doesn’t give a damn about the elephants, that’s one of the biggest piles of shit that the humans have produced here… and they’ve produced plenty of those.

Think about the present-day and now national interests, insularity and obsession with economic growth are preventing a meaningful joint strategy to combat climate change and save natural resources – and suddenly the book seems extremely topical and not just narrowly focused on elephants (even though they are my favourite animals).

I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of course, but Romain Gary can certainly not be accused of reductionism or of presenting an undifferentiated mass of indigenous people ‘the Africans’. Instead, we have a variety of individual and group portraits. Waitari is an MP who has given up his parliamentary role to focus on the independence movement in his native country. He is well-educated and better-spoken than most of the French adventurers we meet on the ground. He tries to make use of a younger, more impressionable freedom-fighter named Youssef, who begins to be won over by Morel. Dwala is a witch-doctor who colludes with the French administrator, Saint Denis. The Oulé people, on whose ancestral lands most of the action takes place, are not really sure about saving the elephant, because to them the grey giants represent both meat and ritual. In refusing to romanticise the native population, instead engaging openly with their concerns and ambitions, and the contradictions in their lives, Gary reminds me of Chinua Achebe (whose Things Fall Apart was published round about the same time, in 1958).

The film featured Trevor Howard as Morel, Erroll Flynn as Forsythe and Juliette Greco as Minna.

This is a fascinating combination of an adventure novel and a philosophical one. But the reason I’ve filled the book with little post-it flags is because there are so many short, snappy quotes I want to remember. Especially this immortal one uttered by Minna:

You can’t judge men by what they do when they take their trousers off. For the really wicked things they do, they tend to get dressed.

I read this book in French, which meant that it took me more than a week to read, so I won’t get the chance to review any other book for the #1956Club. But it was definitely worth it and, in terms of conservationism, the books still has a lot to say to present-day readers.

I gather the film was decidedly less successful. Filmed in the Belgian Congo and Chad, the cast and crew suffered from malaria and other illnesses. Romain Gary was hired to write the script, but Huston later said it was a bit of a disaster, because of his inexperience.

13 thoughts on “#1956Club: Romain Gary”

  1. I’m so happy you liked it. Your review is really faithful to the book and explains very well the complexity of Gary’s writing and thinking. Like Baldwin, Gary is never an extremist and no side of an argument is perfect. Like you said, he doesn’t romanticise the locals. Elephants are a just cause and at the same time, he shows there’s so much more at stake than that.

    He respects his readers in the sense that he doesn’t shy away from complexity and trusts our ability to see the world in all its shades of grey and stay away from dangerous caricatures and black-and-white thinking.

    I also find his lucidity and foresight amazing. I’m thinking of the passages where he foresees the dictatorships that will spread in Africa after decolonization. I wish someone published a anthology of his diplomatic messages, the way they did for Paul Claudel. I’m sure they are full of intelligent assessments on political issues. The man was brilliant.

    Reading your review, I thought about how much The Overstory by Richard Powers mirrors The Roots of Heaven. A bunch of mistfits fight for the preservation of elephants or trees, show a new way of being an activist and demonstrate that their fight for elephant or trees is actually a fight for humanity.

    I really hope that your review will push other readers towards this incredible novel.

    PS: “You can’t judge men by what they do when they take their trousers off. For the really wicked things they do, they tend to get dressed.” This is a quote I saved from this book too. It is so true. (Sexual harrassment excepted, of course)

  2. Thank you so much for introducing me to this wonderful writer, Emma. Yes, it is shocking how prescient this book is – sixty years on and we are still none the wiser, either!

  3. What a fascinating book for 1956 Marina, and much ahead of its time by the sound of things. We haven’t learned that much in the intervening time, have we? And I’m impressed you read this in the original language too.

  4. I was thinking, too, about how topical this book seems, Marina Sofia! It certainly strikes a nerve when you think about some of the things going on in today’s world. And I give Gary credit for engaging in social commentary without it sounding like a Sunday sermon.

  5. I haven’t read Romain Gary yet, though one of his books is in my library queue. With Emma’s championing of him and your insightful post, I’m very interested in reading his work.

  6. This was the book I most wanted to read for 1956 club – but I read lots of shorter ones instead. I am, however, gathering a small collection of Romain Garys for next year…

  7. Great review, this does sound like a fascinating book. I have to admit to knowing nothing about this author. A serious and often thought provoking story I would think.

  8. Such an interesting post, Marina. I was aware of the film but not the fact that it had been based on a Romain Gary novel. The more I read about Gary, the more I realise how much diversity there is across his work – e.g. this seems quite different to The Kites, which I have in my TBR.

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