Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

The Bafut Beagles
by Gerald Durrell
Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954
232 pages

I find this book a little hard to review. It is third in my quest to read all of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical animal stories, and I am glad I read it; it had moments in it I would have been sorry to miss. The man writes beautifully. He has a great turn of phrase, a beautiful knack for description, and a dry, self-skewering sense of humour. These early books of his, at least, are a rich tapestry of love of place, love of animals, and deep curiousity about the world around him.

The Bafut Beagles, though, is a product of its historical moment; published in the early 1950s, the edition I have from the library is a first printing. He spends a lot more time here documenting the people around him than in the previous two, and not always to his credit in a contemporary light. As stated before, I do think that Durrell was likely extremely progressive given his station (a well-enough-off white British male) and I do think he had a healthy dose of respect and affection for the people he met and worked with in the British Cameroons; one realizes this as one reads, and it is quite clear. One also gets vaguely uncomfortable as one identifies a very faint paternalistic colonialism and a definite streak of sexism that rears its head every once in a while. I found it particularly jarring in The Bafut Beagles, thanks largely, I think, to one rather ugly incident that Durrell relates and plays a bit for laughs (though he is laughing at himself, mostly, and his own romantic colonialism, I think). I think also it's because he did spend less time talking about the animals, which is what I read for anyways. That said, as before, I was reading it knowing that it is a snapshot of a fascinating profession in a particular time, and so I was able to enjoy the best parts of the book, and move past the parts that occasionally made me cringe.

It does make me wonder if, when I was reading some of these books for the first time (this was not one of them; of the three I've read so far, only Three Singles to Adventure was a reread) some of the historical tenor of them was present but I missed it, or whether it was removed for political correctness in later editions (I am not sure how I feel about this), or whether his underlying, and (I suspect strongly) unconscious, attitudes changed as the times did -- most of the others of his that I've read were from the late 60s and 70s.

Anyway! As always, my favourite parts of this book were to do with the animals, and particularly the parts in which he is describing a behaviour or a proclivity that a particular animal has, rather than a capture. The simple pen-and-ink illustrations that accompany the text are actually quite helpful in showing the physical characteristics of the animals Durrell describes. He is clearly fascinated -- enamoured, really -- by animals in all of their forms, from the tiniest insects to the largest predators, and it shows. I think part of the reason I didn't like this book quite as well as the first two is that there was less of the animals than there had been previously. He is at his strongest, writing-wise, when he is talking about them, too.

I won't recommend this book, even in Durrell's canon, but I'm not sad to have read it, if that makes any sense. I think it could have been skipped comfortably and I wouldn't have missed too terribly much. It's an interesting read both for the intended subject matter and as an historical exercise, but reader beware, that's all. Aside from my squirming, politically correct caveats, I just don't think it's as strong a book as the previous two in the chronology.

The next book in the chronology is The New Noah, a book I can find very little about. I'm not even sure if I can find it, period, but I'll do what I can and I'm interested to see where -- and when -- Durrell takes me this time.

Other Durrell books reviewed here so far:
1. The Overloaded Ark
2. Three Singles to Adventure