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[L]et's speak a little about symbols. We may as well, as there has hardly been a critic who has not referred to The Roots of Heaven as a symbolic novel. I can only state firmly and rather hopelessly that it is nothing of the sort. It has been said that my elephants are really symbols of freedom, of African independence. Or that they are the last individuals threatened with extinction in our collective, mechanized, totalitarian society. Or that these almost mythical beasts evoke in this atheistical age an infinitely bigger and more powerful Presence. Or, then again, that they are an allegory of mankind itself menaced with nuclear extinction. There is almost no limit to what you can make an elephant stand for, but if the image of this lovable pachyderm thus becomes for each of us a sort of Rorschach test--which was exactly my intention--this does not make him in the least symbolic. It only goes to prove that each of us carries in his soul and mind a different notion of what is essential to our survival, a different longing and a personal interpretation, in the largest sense, of what life preservation is about. -Romain Gary, Author's Introduction to the 1964 Time-Life Books version of The Roots of Heaven
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, probably because they were the most different thing I could imagine from what surrounded me : they were the very image of immense liberty. Every time we looked at the barbed wire or were almost dying of misery and claustrophobia in solitary confinement, we tried to think of those big animals marching irresistibly through the open spaces of Africa, and it made us feel better. Barely alive, starved, exhausted, we would clench our teeth and follow our great free herds obstinately with our eyes, and see them march across the savanna and over the hills, and we could almost hear the earth tremble under that living mass of freedom. We tried not to speak of it, for fear the guards would notice, and sometimes we would just look at each other and wink, and then we knew that it was all right, that we could still see it, that it was still alive in us. We held on to the image of that gigantic liberty, and somehow it helped us to survive.
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 who can afford permits, and what you mean is that we are the only people who are exploiting and exhausting Africa's natural wealth. That's a tune I've heard ever since I've been here, but the truth is that Africa's wealth isn't exploited enough, and that without us it wouldn't be exploited at all, and its very existence would be unknown. Without us, the so-called 'colonists'--and I'm not ashamed of that name--not a single vein of ore would be discovered, and the population wouldn't have doubled in twenty years. When I arrived here I found only syphilis, leprosy and sleeping sickness : I cured my people, fed them, clothed them, gave them work, houses and ambition--the desire to do what we do. It's men like me who have been, and still are, the leaven of Africa. You and your lot call that 'shameless exploitation of Africa's natural wealth'; I call it building up a new Africa for all, and first of all for the Africans. But because ivory was the first thing we were after when we came here at the turn of the century and because we're the only ones to hunt with modern weapons, you've thought it smart to make elephant hunting the symbol of capitalist exploitation.
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 our hearts, but of heaven itself men know nothing but the gripping roots...
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 him with indignation. At bottom, he was an Englishman without knowing it.
The book is not currently in print and it's not easy to find, but it's well worth the effort.
GRADE : A+