Thursday, September 3, 2009

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell

Three Singles to Adventure is the second in my somewhat daunting attempt to read all of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical books. I've read this one before, but it was years and years ago, and it wasn't until I was most of the way through that I remembered at all. There were a couple of stories that tweaked my memory; but otherwise it was like a fresh read for me.

This book starts out promisingly, with four men in a bar in Georgetown (in what was then British Guiana, and is now simply Guyana):

"Well sir," he began, in his incredibly cultured voice, "I think you'd do well if you went to Adventure."

"Where?" asked Bob and I in unison.

"Adventure, sir," he stabbed at the map, "it's a small village just here, near the mouth of the Essequibo."

I looked at Smith.

"We're going to Adventure," I said firmly. "I must go to a place with a name like that."

Which would totally be my reaction, too. Thus begins a book that sometimes felt like it was so close to home I could have written it. Sometimes. Overall this book is just as entertaining and enlightening as The Overloaded Ark. I'm not going to go into my discussion of the discomfort-inducing colonialism that I did in my review of that book, but suffice to say that it was certainly present here too at times.

It also contains hints of the same enthusiastic description of place that I loved in The Overloaded Ark, although one does get the feeling that the jungles of Guiana weren't as eye-opening or as beloved as their African counterpart -- that, or Durrell had a stiffer word count, and I can't quite decide which. Three Singles to Adventure just didn't seem as richly descriptive as I had hoped, although what it lacks in description of place it makes up for in natural history tidbits. In particular, Durrell goes into a detailed (and humourously scathing) repudiation of the "common knowledge" about sloths, mentioning offhand how he's nearly sliced from ankle to hip by the two-toed variety somewhere inbetween discussing their virtues. Or take this passage, about the noble capybara, the largest rodent in the world:

This enormous rodent is a fat, elongated beast clad in harsh, shaggy fur of a brindled brown colour. Since its front legs are longer than its back ones, the capybara always looks as though it is on the point of sitting down. It has large feet, with broad, webbed toes, and on the front ones the nailsare short and blunt, looking curiously like miniature hooves. Its face is very aristocratic: a broad, flat head and the blunt, almost square, muzzle giving it a benign and superior expression like a meditative lion. On land the capybara moves with a peculiar shuffling gait or a ponderous, rolling gallop; but once in the water it swims and dives with astonishing ease and skill. A slow, amiable vegetarian, it lacks the personality displayed by some of its relatives but makes up for it by a placid and friendly disposition.

Can't you just picture it? Durrell introduced me (in this book, I think) to the capybara when I was a kid, and for a long time they held an almost mythic status in my mind. I couldn't quite believe there was something quite like a real capybara in the world, and for years I wasn't sure whether they were real, or if they were, whether they still existed in the wild. I know now that they do, in numbers no less, but I'm still inordinately fond of them, thanks largely to Gerald Durrell. If I ever see one in the wild, the squeeing will be heard in Antarctica.

The story that reminded me that I'd read this book before, though, was the story of the pipa toads and their "birth" in a kerosene tin halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, and the five fascinated sailors who preside, along with Durrell, over the event. I can't reproduce it here (it's a chapter long) but it encapsulates everything I love about nature, human nature, and nature interpretation -- I related so closely to it and recognized that I got into outdoor education largely because of the type of wonder and connection Durrell describes in this chapter. He captures it perfectly. And it made me a little sad that I never did have the chance to meet him, or even write to him. He was the sort of person I would really have enjoyed, even if I was too tongue-tied to speak when he was in the room. (Yes, I would have been. I don't react well to Authors; they make me nervous because I am in awe.)

The next book in the timeline is The Bafut Beagles which I know for sure I have never read. I would remember a title like that.


Cecelia said...

This book sounds intriguing. I've read quite a lot of straight history on South America, but almost no personal accounts or fiction. I'll have to check this out, especially given my fondness for capybaras. Well, it's not a fondness, necessarily, but Bill Peet's picture books were childhood favorites, and one of them featured capybaras prominently. I will always be fond of them simply for that. Nice review!

Hazra said...

Oh, I enjoy Durrell's writing so much. He is like my dark-mood-lightening author. When I read his exploits and adventures, my gloom automatically lifts.

Unknown said...

celi.a - I haven't thought about Bill Peet's books in years! They were some of my favourites, too, although some of them made me sad.

Hazra - I absolutely hear you. His writing is so charming and mostly quite cheerful.