Gary (1914-1980; The Kites, 2017, etc.), French Resistance aviator, war hero, and the only author to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt under two different names, overlays the plight of elephants and humans in this sprawling and ambitious novel set in post–WWII Africa.
The book begins as a story within a story, in a style reminiscent of Conrad, the details emerging gradually. A Jesuit priest arrives deep in the bush of French Equatorial Africa to question the colonial administrator there about events of the recent past. At the heart of the story is an idealist and former dentist named Morel, who petitions for the protection of the elephant herds. Dismissed as a crackpot and accused of misanthropy for caring more about elephants than people, he eventually abandons his petition and turns vigilante, shooting hunters and elephant trappers, burning ivory traders' buildings, ordering a trophy hunter flogged in public. His story catches the world's attention, stirring up sympathy for his cause and creating a public relations disaster for the local colonial government. Others join him: an elderly Danish naturalist and environmentalist; a young German woman orphaned in the siege of Berlin and raped by Russian soldiers; a dishonorably discharged, alcoholic American major; a charismatic Oulé tribesman with a French wife and education who wants to use Morel and his elephants in the struggle for African self-determination; a Jewish American news photographer who lost his family to the Nazis. As in The Kites, Gary is interested in the fate of idealism in a disillusioned, violent world, but this novel also compels us to consider the fate of nature in the face of human encroachment and greed. The horrors of WWII and the atomic bomb loom over the characters. Morel's identification with elephants began in a German concentration camp, where the idea of them roaming free on the plains of Africa kept him sane. Though his motives get twisted for political ends, he repeatedly rejects nationalism, insisting that the elephants are not symbols but living beings: "They breathe, they suffer, and they die, like you and me." The theme of suffering runs deeply through the novel. So does the loneliness of the human condition, which dogs each of these characters differently, including the British colonel with the pet jumping bean that is later buried with him. Gary shows a deep sympathy for his well-drawn, misfit characters as well as for the continent of Africa, shown here at a crossroads.
First published in 1956, this stirring, populous, large-hearted story about a rogue environmentalist is both a portrait of a vanished age and a timely reminder of the choices that still confront us.