Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The New Noah by Gerald Durrell

The New Noah
by Gerald Durrell
Viking Press, 1964 (originally published in 1955)
223 pages

This was an odd one, in that I started reading it and thought two things: first, I've read about these trips before, and not when I was a kid, but rather more recently; and second, the last time I read these, they were written better. It was weird. And then I read the dust jacket, and realized that the advertising was all right there -- these were, indeed, retellings of previous adventures, but primarily aimed at kids. Once I had that all sorted, I could enjoy the book for what it was. Sort of.

I believe I have mentioned before a number of things I like about Gerald Durrell's writing -- his enthusiasm for nature, his desire to share the quirks and amazing things about the animals he meets, and especially his eloquence when it comes to describing settings, and his sharp and self-deprecating sense of humour. Some of that was still in evidence here, but in taking his "best" stories from the earlier books and editing them for a younger audience, we really only got the first two, with rare glimpses of the third and fourth -- he's telling animal stories, and he's shortened them, and they're considerably less incisive and/or amusing than their counterparts written for adults. They don't sparkle in the same way. The language is simpler, the stories shorter, the sense of adventure and danger and occasionally sorrow or outrage just doesn't show up. Chumly the Chimp (remember him?) makes an appearance and gets most of a chapter -- an unusual thing for any single animal in this book -- but the sadness of the story has vanished. Chumly's ignoble and tragic end isn't mentioned, isn't even alluded to. Perhaps this was considered too distressing for children to hear? Durrell uses this volume as a bit of a platform for discussing the life of an animal collector, but doesn't quite hit the same note that the previous three do: the acknowledgement that collecting fauna for zoos is as much hard work, pain, disappointment, and frustration as it is excitement and success. The book is significantly poorer for the lack of balance and depth.

It is possible that this book would be a better entree to Durrell's oeuvre. I think because I am familiar with his better stuff -- his "real" books, as it were -- this was not a terribly good choice for me.

Complaints aside, it's still fun to read these stories, truncated and disjointed as they are, and it's a very fast read. The stories are short and amusing even without the sparkle of wit and vivid description, and the little bits on his trips to Guiana, Argentina, and Paraguay have certainly whet my appetite for the next book in my quest to read all his autobiographical animal tales. Though it also became clear to me that I've read The Drunken Forest before -- I remember the story about Amos the Anteater well, including the bit where the gaucho's wife rides out on the back of the draft bull to pick up the aforementioned creature. And the tale about the musical capybara was one of the better and funnier tales in the book.

Only recommended if you haven't got any other Durrell to read, and absolutely need a fix. I suppose if you wanted to get a kid an early Durrell book that didn't include any unpleasant colonial English white male overtones, you might do well with this, too. The stories focus on the animals almost exclusively, so some of the parts that are not so desirable about his earlier books are absent here. However, as an adult reader, too much of the wonder and beauty and balance of his first books is absent too; I won't feel the need to read this one again.

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


Bookwyrme said...

I read a lot of Durrell's stuff when I was a kid--it was on the shelves in a friend's house. I really should try his stuff again & see what I think as an adult.

Kiirstin Maki said...

I think the adult stuff mostly does stand up to an adult reading, but this one didn't. As I've said, there are some ... historical components that feel a bit icky. But read in context, these are fantastic books. He really does know how to write, when he's not dumbing things down.