Monday, August 3, 2009

The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell

I am managing to peel myself away from my next read for long enough to write this review. It's not that I don't want to recommend The Overloaded Ark; quite the opposite, in fact. But my next book is really, really good and very gripping, and I've been having the privilege of multiple consecutive uninterrupted hours to read it.

But enough about other books.

The Overloaded Ark is the first of a great number of autobiographical tales written by Gerald M. Durrell. Many years ago, in my pre-teens and teens, I read everything by Durrell I could get my hands on. Which I am realizing wasn't that much, looking at his bibliography. I'd never heard of The Overloaded Ark, but I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so I looked up Durrell and settled on reading all his autobiographies, in publication order.

To understand this book, I think it's really important to first put it in context. Durrell went on several "collecting" expeditions for British zoos in his life. As far as I understand, this sort of expedition just doesn't happen anymore and for very good reason. It's not considered good zoo behaviour to be sending minions out to pull live specimens out of their habitat, unless it's to establish captive breeding programs for a seriously endangered species. But back in the 1940s, when Durrell's first expedition took place, it was a commonplace activity. And as Durrell says in his prologue, part of what he is trying to do with this book is set the record straight -- collecting expeditions were neither unending drudgery nor unending danger.

The time period is part of what makes this book so fascinating, but it also causes some serious cringing on my part. There's overtones of -- and sometimes overt -- racist colonialism and even hints of sexism, all of which at the time would have been considered normal for a white, British man visiting British Cameroon at the time the book was written. Much of the time I think Durrell was ahead of his time as far as racism and environmental concerns, but sometimes he'll write something really jarring in an otherwise splendid book. So my suggestion would be to read this book, but read it with the historical context in mind. It doesn't make any of the colonial overtones right, but it is an interesting historical exercise to read this book and realize just how deeply embedded some of this objectionable stuff was in society.

Moving past the issues (which I will admit was, for me, very hard to do at first; I don't read a lot from this time period and so it was an exercise in not being massively put off), Durrell is underrated as a writer, I think. His style is poetic, often quite funny (usually at his own expense), and thoughtful. He wants his readers to fall in love with the African jungle, and with passages like the following, how could I not?

The most notable feature of the forest was the innumerable tiny streams, shallow and clear, that meanered their way in an intricate and complicated pattern across its floor. Glinting and coiling around the smooth brown boulders, sweeping in curves to form the snow-white sandbanks, busily hollowing out the earth from under the grasping tree roots, shimmering and chuckling, they went into the dark depths of the forest. They chattered and frothed importantly over diminutive waterfalls, and scooped out deep placid pools in the sandstone, where the blue and red fish, the pink crabs, and the small gaudy frogs lived.

He has a turn of phrase that is both dryly amusing and wonderfully descriptive, as when describing a bicycle trip he takes with one of his assistants sitting on the handlebars, where they "shot out onto the high road like a drunken snipe." Or that section I mentioned in my teaser, with the naked ant battle. Actually, Durrell seemed to have a number of naked encounters... another one I laughed at went as follows:

It stood quite still, regarding me thoughtfully, and the tip of its tail moved very gently among the grass stalks. I had seen domestic cats looking like this at sparrows, twitching their tails, and I did not feel very happy about it. Also, I was stark naked, and I have found that in moments of crisis to have no clothes on gives one a terribly unprotected feeling. I glared at the Serval, wishing that I had my shorts on and that I could think of some way of capturing it without the risk of being disembowled.

Because yes, Durrell goes to some enormous lengths to catch his critters. It's always top of mind -- even when staring down large cats, or faced with a Gaboon Viper (a rather deadly snake, as he might say) in his living quarters, or falling down a hillside onto the back of an enormous Monitor Lizard which has already taken a nasty strips out of a dog. What amazes me most about this book, though, is that one never ever loses sight of the fact that Durrell loves these animals. He loves the forest, he loves the flowers, the beetles, the birds, reptiles, mammals -- he loves it all. And to him, capturing and attempting to keep these animals alive is part of loving them. One doesn't have to agree with his methods, but I know that love of nature. I have it myself.

He includes a couple of notes about failure, too. He's very conscious of mentioning that though he's included the exciting bits in the book, most of his time on a collecting trip is spent in animal care. And much of that is quite boring. He also tells us where things go wrong, as with animals he simply can't figure out how to keep alive in captivity; and there's one really lovely, touching chapter about Chumly the chimpanzee. It's a very sad story, and he never lays blame or points fingers for Chumly's demise, and leaves the conclusions to the reader -- and this reader came out feeling really horrified by human stupidity and laziness.

There are a lot of things about this book to recommend it, if you are aware of the time period it's written in and prepared to take that as it comes. I am going to continue with my plan to read Durrell's autobiographical works in order, but I'm also thinking I might throw his book The Stationary Ark in there as well, in which he talks about zoos and their relationship to the natural world, and his philosophy of effective and ethical zoo management. I've never read it, but heard good things.

If you're reading Durrell for the first time, I don't know that I'd start here. It's his first published novel and it's not quite as polished as some of the others, although at points it is really, blindingly beautiful. So, very recommended, with caveats.


Mandy said...

Actually it sounds hilarious! I love all the nakedness; does he ever explain what he was doing naked when he's caught off guard?
I love the diction of his writing. Nowadays writers have this Hemingway approach, all short sentences, very punchy. He writes like a meandering walkabout. Nice review!

Unknown said...

Oh, there's always a reasonable explanation for the nakedness. It's one of those things where you're like, "Yes, I would also have been naked if I had been him at that moment." Which makes it funnier, usually.

Re: the meandering sentences -- yes, you're exactly right! Not everyone can pull off a really good, very long sentence, but Durrell almost always does.