#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.

#1956Club: Children’s Books

Alf Prøysen: Little Old Mrs Pepperpot

The first Mrs Pepperpot story appeared in 1956 in Norway, so I am using that date, rather than the 1959 date for its first English translation. Sadly, my 1984 Red Fox edition does not name the translator and only credits Hutchinson (publisher) for the 1959 translation.

This was one of the books that our teacher would read out loud in class while we were doing Arts and Crafts (others included Pippi Longstocking, the Moomins, Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga). I loved stories and hated being crafty, so unsurprisingly, I have fonder memories of the books than of the messy, glue-stricken ‘masterpieces’ I created. The Scandinavian book choices might seem surprising for a school that was so resolutely, old-fashionedly English, especially since all of them have a slightly anarchic tendency. Pippi is anti-school and anti-grown-ups, the Moomins and their friends often rush off and do strange things, while Mrs Pepperpot… Well, she seems to take the sudden shrinking to the size of a salt-and-pepper shaker in her stride, but she often does eccentric or even naughty things when she is that size. See for instance the chaos that ensues when she goes to the school bazaar – although you could argue that the snobbish smart ladies organising the bazaar deserve their come-uppance.

This first volume contains only five Mrs Pepperpot stories, while the remaining seven are more general, very short and often quite funny stories. Those too tend to subvert the given order: Mr Puffblow’s hat is blown away and becomes a boat for field mice; a fancy new doll longs to escape from the display case and get rough and dirty; little mice make their appearance in houses and wreak havoc.

However, I have to admit that, though charming, I did find the stories rather slight upon rereading. I think this is a book best enjoyed with 4-6 year olds.

Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword

Another book from my schooldays – this one and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr were the two mainstays of English children’s literature about the Second World War, but The Silver Sword appeared first. This book achieves that rare feat of depicting (then recent) history in such a way that children will both enjoy but also remember. It’s an adventure tale, as the three parentless children from the Warsaw ghetto set off across Europe as the war draws to an end, in an effort to rejoin their father, whom they believe to be in Switzerland. But it is also a story of friendship, sibling loyalty, courage and human kindness triumphing in the face of adversity.

Although many of the scenes are based upon factual research and period documents, the story is a bit too sanitised. I suppose it is intended for a young audience, but the idea of the soldiers in the Soviet army being all helpful and not at all observant of the fact that the oldest child is seventeen and a pretty girl… just doesn’t seem quite plausible. At least, not according to the stories my grandmother and great-aunts told me. And pretty much everyone they meet along the way is just so darn helpful. Even if this is after the end of the war, would deprivation have made people more or less willing to help?

However, there were some scenes that were remarkable and thoughtful: the long line of refugees and the chaos of trying to reunite families or the conversation between the children and the German farmers who provide them with shelter somewhere in Bavaria, whose sons would have been killing Poles on the front.

Once again, this didn’t quite live up to my fond memories of it, which just goes to show that perhaps childhood favourites are best left on the high shelf of nostalgia.

So these are my first two reads for the #1956Club of books published in 1956, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I look forward to seeing what the others have found and reviewed. My next review will be of one of the first ‘ecological’ novels ever written, The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) by Romain Gary. I’m about halfway through reading it now and have high hopes that it won’t disappoint me!

September Reading Summary

Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.

My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest was wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.

On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.

I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle England as a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.

So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?

So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.

 

 

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!