April 05, 2003

The Overloaded Ark, by Gerald Durrell

I found this book in a bookstore in the Kingston neighborhood of Canberra. I plucked it off of the shelf because of its title, and submitted it to the Page 100 test, a trick I learned from one of Donald Knuth's books. Having read the cover blurb and perhaps the table of contents, open the book to page 100, and read that page. This is far more effective than reading the first few pages; the author expected you to look at those pages first thing, and probably spent lots of time polishing them. But there's nothing to distinguish page 100 of the book from any other in the author's mind--indeed, when he submits his manuscript, he probably doesn't even know what's going to end up on that page--so it's a more representative sample of the quality of the book as a whole.

Now, The Overloaded Ark is a memoir of an animal collecting trip to the Cameroons (as they were called in the 1950's) by the owner of an English zoo. It's intended to be light and funny, though factual, and for the most part it succeeds. Page 100, for example, concerns the author's attempts to teach the village boys that he won't buy animals from them unless they are in good condition. He finally shames them into it by publically rewarding a little girl who brings him a bird she's handled gently and well, and then questioning their manhood. After that, he says, he has no more difficulty.

And that sample is indeed representative, but not in the way the author would have expected. Because what's most interesting in this book isn't the depiction of African flora and fauna (though these are presented by a loving and witty hand), or even the travails of collecting the animals and keeping them alive for the return trip to England. Rather, it's the relationship between the author and the natives. They are dark-skinned; he is the great white sahib. He calls them by name; they call him Masa. They have villages dances; sometimes he deigns to adorn their dances with his presence. He is erudite; they are ignorant, frequently knowing less about certain animals than he does. He is masterful; they are subservient.

And yet, he genuinely cares for his native employees, and takes care of them in many ways; and they, for their part, seem genuinely honored by his attention.

Quite frankly, it's a PC person's nightmare. And though I don't try to be politically correct, it nevertheless gave me much food for thought.

So it was an interesting book to read, as well as being a useful source book should I ever wish to write anything about collecting animals. On the other hand, it wasn't quite the laugh riot I'd been hoping for.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 5, 2003 12:55 PM