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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
[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+
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Man's struggle for a meaningful existence takes place on three different levels in this wonderfully told tale set in pre 1960 Africa. The first level is the aftermath of world war two with humanity trying to reaffirm its right to exist. Second, is Africa's awakening during the 50's and its rapidly approaching fight for independence from its colonial powers, and third is man's attempt to become at one with nature and thus fill the spiritual void within itself. The images are vivid and varied going back and forth from the rubble laden city of Berlin where a young lady sells herself to the Russian soldiers, to the dusty villages in Africa where mere youths are taking up arms to kill men since they can no longer kill elephants, to the POW camps of WWII, to the Catholic missions deep in the jungles where priests ponder the likelihood of there being a just God. This book does much more than scream the necessity of saving nature for future generations, it pleads for all of! us to develop more fully our personal relationships both real and spiritual.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book was made into an indifferent and much altered movie in the late 50's. Set in Equatorial Africa after the Second World War it follows the efforts of the Frenchman Morel to save the elephant from extinction at the hands of poachers and big game hunters.
What sets this book apart is that in the course of relating the story of the African herds, Gary presents the reader with every moral dilemma faced by man today. This makes for a spiritually and intellectually uplifting read, as if Gary has somehow tapped into a force both beyond and mightier than himself. One is swept along on whole passages, each of which seems more significant than the last.
Also of interest is the coming of age of Gary's views on conservation, many of which must have seemed ludicrous to the 1950's reader. Likewise the politics of Africa are discussed with brutal honesty. "When the African has his belly full" one character tells us, "perhaps then he too will take an interest in the aesthetic aspect of the elephant."
The Roots of Heaven has for years been my all time favorite novel. I believe it to be a book of cosmic significance, an experience of the Numinous with the potential to change lives. Over the last two decades I have urged many others to read it but, sadly, have had no success at all. Such a pity!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I recently reread this book, wondering if I'd love it as much as I did before. I did. This is my very favorite book in the entire world. It's a picture of humanity, and the picture isn't necessarily a happy one. Still, it almost gives one hope that all isn't lost quite yet. Well, maybe not ...
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on October 24, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Well written and very provocative. As a representation of late African imperialism it is quite remarkable. Characters ring true and dialogue is believable. I read this after seeing the John Huston movie (several times) and found the original most original and thought provoking. By the way, author's name is Romain Gary, not Roman Gary.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
A really beautiful book. Quite prophetic at the time of writing. The book is extremely generous of humanities nonsense and portrays the cruelty of mankind toward the elephant and each other as an almost divine entitlement. A book to be enjoyed and re read.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2004
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
just how crazy is the desire for human decency? If you are intrigued by this question, then you will agree that this is the best novel ever written.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The Roots of Heaven was published at 1956 year. But it looks like nobody payed attention on his opinion how to deal with country in post colonial time. World elite just applied principals of west democracy. It didn't do any good for most of counties.
Roman Gary in this book did great job for protecting Africa's Fauna.
But most important thing is to see how he loves human being after such cruel WAR II.
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