Friday, February 3, 2017

The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

Titled Les Racines du ciel in France, the novel won the 1956 Prix Goncourt, a prestigious literary award administered by the académie Goncourt.  The book was translated into English by Jonathan Griffin and published in hardcover as The Roots of Heaven in January, 1958. Shown here is the second paperback edition (September, 1958) featuring Errol Flynn and Juliette Greco on the cover although their names never appear anywhere on the book. This edition coincided with the release of the Twentieth Century Fox film. Director John Huston and producer Darryl F. Zanuck are named on the book’s cover. For vintage paperback collectors this is the Pocket Books Cardinal Giant GC-61 and priced at 50 cents upon its release. The page count is 389 pages which was thick for a traditional pocket paperback. Gary’s novel is quite good, although my assessment is obviously based upon the translation. The protagonist is Morel, who is described as a man who exceeds loneliness and is quoted as saying: “People feel so damned lonely, they need company, they need something bigger, stronger, to lean on, something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough; what we need is elephants…” There are enough motifs and themes in all of post-World War II French literature to keep an academic elbow deep in analysis for a lifetime, and these ideas are sprinkled throughout the narrative, although I discerned nothing that was blatant other than Gary’s intent that Morel represents an “allegory of ideas.” His fixation on elephants drives the plot. Readers are free to infer what analogies they may as the adventure unfolds. The supporting players are a diverse lot and add substantial texture. This includes Minna, a German girl had had lost her innocence when Berlin fell to the Allies; A brainwashed American officer named Johnny Forsythe; a photographer, a gunrunner and various hangers-on who cross the path of the idealist Morel. The subject matter is typical of a post-war novel and stated implicitly throughout the narrative: “…the elephants were only a pretext, a useful means of propaganda, the symbol of the exploitation of African natural resources by foreign capitalism. They knew of course that colonialism had implanted itself in Africa because of ivory, before turning to more lucrative sports. The elephants were also a convenient image of African power on the march – a power that nothing could stop…they were an anachronism, a weight tied to the legs of a new, modern, industrialized and electrified Africa. They were a survival from a tribal darkness.” (p.213) Morel’s fate is inextricably tied to the elephants and the encroachment upon Africa of an industrialized age. The Roots of Heaven itself is stylistically removed from today’s clipped journalistic prose, even among the French, and its vast array of characters and monologues all combine for an enlightening reading experience for any anyone willing to tackle the book. I enjoyed it, and I took my sweet time reading it to allow its ideas to resonate. It’s easy to see why John Huston was attracted to the material, and while it’s true he said later that he disliked his own film, The Roots of Heaven has its merits. I agree that the film is meandering, and Huston never fully came to grips with Morel’s character and the impetus behind his actions. But Trevor Howard as Morel is wonderful, and the great Errol Flynn, in a brief and watered-down version of the Forsythe character, turns in a superb performance as an aging alcoholic.

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