#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.

#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)

Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

DeathMantisIf you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.

 

This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.

 

It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people –  used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.

 

The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.

 

Sunrise in Botswana
Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!