The Roots of Heaven (1956)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (21)
[L]et's speak a little about symbols. We may
as well, as there has hardly been a critic who has not
It is one of the peculiarities of great literature, that having created it, the author sometimes loses control of it. Thus, Don Quijote, the first and greatest novel of Western Literature, may have been intended by Cervantes to be a devastating parody of the chivalric tales, but instead of making us scoff at the Don's antiquated ideas, the book gave us the quintessential romantic idealist hero. Similarly, when he wrote his Prix Goncourt winning book The Roots of Heaven, Romain Gary may have thought that he had crafted a novel of immense ambiguity, but readers have had little trouble finding in this tale of the French dentist Morel and his mad quest to save the elephants of Africa, a fairly straightforward metaphor for the struggle to preserve freedom.
Morel has come to a French Equatorial Africa which, in the wake of WWII, is percolating with unrest as the natives begin to agitate for independence. Meanwhile, the European settlers who developed the territory wish to hold on to what they've created. Added to the mix are various and sundry missionaries, anthropologists, prostitutes, traders, hunters, army deserters, and the like, who have all washed up in the colony.
Morel starts out by trying to get folks to sign a petition in favor of the elephants, but when he is met with scorn and indifference, he takes matters into his own hands and begins a campaign of low-grade (non-lethal) terrorism against those who hunt the animals. He quickly becomes the most wanted man in the colony, and then a legendary figure to the whole world. He is a hero to many, a traitorous and dangerous figure to the authorities, and a convenient opportunity to the rebels. People, with widely varying motives, including fomenting revolution, begin to join his crusade. At one point, when he is still petitioning, he explains to the local barmaid/prostitute, Minna, how he came to champion the elephant :
I first began thinking about the elephants during
the war, when I was a prisoner in Germany,
So regardless of Gary's supposed intent, Morel's own words, here and throughout the book, would seem to indicate that he himself sees the elephants as symbol's of freedom.
It would have been easy enough for Gary to simply turn Morel into an unalloyed hero, a classic freedom fighter, but he does not. Gary refers to Morel as an extremist of hope, and the emphasis is equally placed on the extremism. A Jesuit priest in the novel, loosely modeled on Tielhard de Chardin, quite accurately indicts Morel for elevating the idea of the elephants above even his fellow man. I think it's the priest who points out that Morel has chosen to place his hopes in the elephants because they are without sin, and the inability to accept Man's nature which this choice reflects is at heart anti-human. In addition, Gary does not simply demonize those who oppose Morel; many of them are just as idealistic as he. One of the best set speeches in the book comes from one of the colonists, whose elephant hunting wife Morel has just sentenced to a public flogging :
I know the tune. The elephants, you say.
But it's only Europeans who have hunting weapons and
Now this assessment of Morel's motives is quite wrong, but it's important for a couple of reasons. First, it presents a legitimate defense of the colonists. Second, the very misunderstanding reflects the reason why, even though Morel is generally a sympathetic figure, the Europeans may be right to resist him, because even though his motives may be pure, others can warp them to their own ends.
One of the characters explains the title of the book this way :
Our needs--for justice, for freedom and dignity--are
roots of heaven that are deeply imbedded in
The ferocity with which Morel clings to this sentiment and the absurd grandeur of his fight make him one of the more unforgettable heroes in all of literature and one whom it's odd to find in a French novel. Then again, as another charcter says of him :
I believe Morel was defending a certain idea of decency--the
way we are treated on this earth filled
The book is not currently in print and it's not easy to find, but it's well worth the effort.
See also:Romain Gary (2 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
-Romain Gary (1914-1980) - original surname Kacew, also wrote as Émile Ajar (kirjasto)
-WIKIPEDIA: Romain Gary
-FILMOGRAPHY: Romain Gary (IMDB)
-PROFILE: Romain Gary: au revoir et merci: Romain Gary was the most glamorous of literary conmen. He wrote novels under many names, won major prizes and married an iconic actress. But in the end, writes David Bellos, his fictions destroyed him. (David Bellos, 12 Nov 2010, Telegraph)
-PROFILE: Great Pretenders: In Romain Gary’s family, invention was the necessity of mother and son (Emma Garman, Oct 31, 2007, Tablet)
-BOOK PAGE: Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Ralph Schoolcraft (University of Pennsylvania Press)
-GOOGLE BOOK: Romain Gary: the man who sold his shadow By Ralph W. Schoolcraft
-PROFILE: Romain Gary: A Short Biography (Madeleine Schwartz, Harvard Advocate)
-ESSAY: Romain Gary's The Dance of Genghis Cohn (commentary by rbadac)
-ESSAY: Tirvengadum, "Linguistic Fingerprints and Literary Fraud"
-PROFILE: The Furious Literary Prankster, Romain Gary (Benjamin Ivry, 9/20/10, The Arty Semite)
-ARTICLE: Literary odd man out: THE Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris recently paid a somewhat belated homage to one of the most popular but also enigmatic and controversial literary figures of our times. (Zafar Masud, April 14, 2011, Dawn)
-ARTICLE: Romain Gary, Vilnius-born French Jewish novelist, honoured with statue (AFP, 6/24/07)
-ESSAY: Congress, Torture and Romain Gary's 'Chien Blanc' (Benjamin Davis, December 2007, JURIST)
-REVIEW: of A European Education by Romain Gary (TIME, 5/14/1960)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Brought to book: How Romain Gary achieved ‘consecration in the Pléiade’ David Coward, TLS)
-REVIEW: of Pseudo (Hocus Bogus) by Romain Gary (David Bellow, The Browser)
-REVIEW: of Romain Gary’s “Hocus Bogus” (Morten Høi Jensen, Words without Borders)
-REVIEW: of The Life Before Us (Madame Rosa) by Romain Gary (EuroWeekly)
-REVIEW: of Romain Gary: A Tall Story, By David Bellos (David Coward , Independent)
-REVIEW: of Romain Gary: A Tall Story (Patricia Duncker, Literary Review)
-REVIEW: of Romain Gary: A Tall Story (STUART KELLY, The Scotsman)
-REVIEW: of Tall Story (Josh Lacey, The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of Tall Story (Stoddard Martin, Jewish Chronicle)
-REVIEW: of Tall Story (Gilbert Adair, Spectator)
Book-related and General Links:
-Romain Gary (1914-1980) - original surname Kacew, also wrote as Émile Ajar
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Gary, Romain
-The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001. : Gary, Romain
-EXCERPT : Excerpt from 'Roots of Heaven'
-ARTICLE : GARY WON '75 GONCOURT UNDER PSEUDONYM 'AJAR' (FRANK J. PRIAL, Special to the New York Times)
-ESSAY : Tirvengadum, "Linguistic Fingerprints and Literary Fraud"
-ESSAY : Romain Gary's The Dance of Genghis Cohn (commentary by rbadac)
-REVIEW : of KING SOLOMON. By Romain Gary (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of KING SOLOMON. By Romain Gary (John Weightman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of PLAYED OUT: The Jean Seberg Story. By David Richards (Mel Gussow, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of PLAYED OUT The Jean Seberg Story. By David Richards (Janet Maslin, NY Times Book Review)
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Prix Goncourt
Never seen the movie, though I've looked for it. Leonard Maltin refers to it as "turgid melodramatics".
- Oct-22-2002, 11:48
I didn't know anyone out there remembered this wonderful novel-- never mind someone who shares my politcs! Now I'm going to have to look at ALL your novel recommendations.
Have you seen the movie based on it? I have, but about 30 years ago, so I can't remember how good it was. But it was by John Huston, perhaps the best director ever at adapting literature to film.
- Steve Bodio
- Oct-22-2002, 11:22
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