Friday, 24 March 2017

Book Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

In many parts of the world eco-activists are sniggered at or much worse because people feel that they have more pressing problems than protecting their environment – worries about potable water, enough food or a decent home for instance. Others carelessly exploit, pollute and destroy our only natural habitat not out of necessity, but out of greed for money or even out of sheer human arrogance that they willingly justify quoting religious, philosophical or scientific sources in their favour. Machiavelli sends his compliments! In the end, it’s only a tiny step from disrespect for nature to disregard for our fellow human beings and their fundamental needs or rights. On the surface the winner novel of the French Prix Goncourt 1956, The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary, seems to deal only with the stubborn fight of one man for the protection of elephants in Africa while in reality it addresses central human ideals, above all freedom.

Romain Gary was born Roman Kacew (Ромaн Кaцев) in Vilna, Russian Empire (now: Vilnius, Lithuania), in May 1914. In 1928 he moved to Nice, France, with his mother and later studied law in Aix-en-Provence and Paris. When German troops occupied France, he fled to England and joined the French army under Charles de Gaulle as a pilot. At this time he also changed his name to Romain Gary. Immediately after the war he published his first novel A European Education (Education européenne: 1945) and joined the French diplomatic corps. In the following 35 years the prolific writer brought out important novels like The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel: 1956) and, using the pseudonym Émile Ajar, The Life Before Us (La vie devant soi: 1975) that won the prestigious Prix Goncourt 1956 and 1975 respectively. Others of his notable novels are The Company of Men (Le Grand Vestiaire: 1949), The Colours of the Day (Les Couleurs du jour: 1952), Promise of Dawn (La Promesse de l'aube: 1960), The Talent Scout (1961), and and The Dance of Genghis Cohn (La Danse de Gengis Cohn: 1967). Romain Gary died in Paris, France, in December 1980. His Vie et Mort d'Émile Ajar (1981; Life and Death of Émile Ajar) and some other works were published posthumously.

Set in Fort-Lamy (today: Ndjamena) and its far surroundings in the Chad in the early 1950s, i.e. when the country was still part of French Equatorial Africa, The Roots of Heaven surrounds the Frenchman Morel and his uncompromising fight for his beloved elephants that men are killing by the thousands for meat as source of protein, for ivory to make big money or simply for the “fun” of taking a life. At first, he just makes his rounds with a briefcase full of petitions that he asks people to sign… which, of course, hardly anyone does. Very few understand his cause, only those who like Morel know great suffering, humiliation and solitude and find relief in the splendour of African nature. The former French Resistance man Morel is marked by the experience of forced labour in German concentration camps that he survived only thanks to his ability to visualise troops of elephants roaming the wilderness and crushing everything in their way.
“… I took a good look at those dogs, out of whom gelatine and soap would be made, and I said to myself: You wait a little, you human master race, I’ll teach you, I’ll teach you to respect life. […] It wasn’t worth while to stand up for this or for that separately, men or dogs—it was essential to attack the root of the problem, the protection of nature. …”
Finding that his petitions aren’t taken seriously anywhere, he becomes militant. With the armed support of the ambitious local politician Waïtari and his men who believe that they can use Morel for their own pan-African cause, i.e. independence from the colonial powers, he begins to strike grotesque punitive attacks against the proudest elephant hunters in the region. And before long, Morel’s actions get the hoped for attention of the government in Paris and of the international public. The local police chase him, though only half-heartedly. Then the young German nightclub hostess Minna and the British military officer Forsyte who have been living in Fort-Lamy for some time join him in the bush finding the aged Danish naturalist Peer Qvist and the ancient African pathfinder Idriss already by his side. But soon Waïtari’s men turn against him tired of seeing their political cause ignored…

In the official investigation following Morel’s assaults on several inveterate elephant hunters and his disappearance after the “show-down” by the lake, all people involved give testimony of what happened thus highlighting the story of The Roots of Heaven from different, often very personal angles. These changing points of view are a bit of a challenge at first, but I quickly got used to it. On the other hand, it took me a while to see what Morel and his active or passive supporters understood right away, namely that to fight for the elephant – so big and yet at our mercy – means to stay human in a world that knows concentration camps, atomic bombs or these days terrorism. The elephant serves as big and thick-skinned symbol of all the values that we associate with paradise or heaven and that we need to fight for: respect for life, dignity, justice, love… and freedom, especially the freedom of thought. The dense environmentalist plot of the novel is easy enough to follow, but its multi-layered metaphoric side leaves so much room for interpretation that it makes the book altogether a bit of a difficult read. At least, the author’s French didn’t give me a hard time at all.

Being interested in environmental issues, The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary was a read that caught me from the beginning. Since it’s also a strikingly thought-provoking novel that lingers on in the mind for really long, I’ve come to consider it the perfect choice for someone like me. I simply loved this classic! The sad side of this read is that it shows how little human attitude towards the wealth of nature has changed in over sixty years. It’s a great pity that all English editions of this great work of French literature seem to be out of print, i.e. I couldn’t find one published after 1973. The few quotations from English translations that I found online also make me fear that they aren’t always too close to the French original. Nonetheless, if you can find a copy of this book or you can read it in another language, especially the original like me, I strongly recommend it to you.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. Hi Edith,

    Thanks for this great review of a book by my favourite writer.
    What you didn't mention is how ahead of its time this book was. The word ecology didn't even exist and Gary has a very lucid vision of the end of colonisation in Africa and the subsequent dictatorships that would occur.

    He was a humanist, a man who always wanted to be a Mensch.
    Here in France, the shelves in bookstores always include several of his novels and they are constantly re-published. He would deserve to be rediscovered abroad.

    PS : I HIGHLY recommend Chien blanc, about racism in the US. It's an extremely interesting book.

    1. Hello Emma! I thought that it was you who said that Romain Gary was her favourite writer, but I wasn't sure.

      Oh, there's soooo much that I didn't mention about this wonderful novel! I reckon that analyses of it fill several books. I thought that it was "self-evident" (if anything ever is) that a classic from 1956 about ecological issues was much ahead of its time, so I left the information away. Thanks for adding it with your comment!

      I was quite sure that at least the most important of Gary's books must be available in every French bookshop. I haven't checked for German translations, but I came across some doing online research. Only the English editions seem to be out of print... considering who the Americans made their President, I'm not really surprised. Ecology doesn't seem to be an issue that the average American gives much thought.

      And thanks for the recommendation! Chien blanc really seems to be a book for me. I'll see if I can find it here.

    2. I hope you'll find Chien Blanc
      I put a link to your post on my Reading Romain Gary Page.

    3. I hope, I will! Romain Gary really seems to be an author to my taste.

      And thanks for putting a link to my review on your page! This explains why I had more visitors than usual this week-end ;-)

  2. Well, another coincidence between you and me, Edith. I once read a book by Emile Ajar: Momo. I found it randomly on a library shelf. I just checked and found that Momo won the Goncourt in 1975. I read it long before I was blogging, pre-1991, but I found it in my reading log. Again, it was prescient. I wrote: "He (Momo) is an Arab brought up by a Jew, educated by a Muslim, and also cared for sometimes by a transvestite who is halfway through a sex change from male to female." Thanks for your review of The Roots of Heaven. I will have to read it in English, after I find a used copy somewhere, but I will read it. I am an American who cares deeply about ecological issues!

    1. This sounds like a bit of a weird story - one that I'll like. Thanks for sharing your impressions with us. I'll see if I can find La vie devant soi.

      And of course, my remark about the average American not seeming to give ecology much thought didn't refer to you (or any American I know personally). It's just the impression that you get here following the news.

    2. Well, you are right. We are a country divided on the whole issue. Generally the left are in favor and the right are not. Our current President is a fervent climate change denier and opposes any legislation designed to deal with it but to his mind puts restrictions on business. From my point of view, that is a disaster. Sad.

    3. I'd say that all countries are devided on ecological issues, some more, some less. It's even in Gary's book - some understand and support Morel's fight, others are strongly opposed to it for different reasons.

      Luckily, in a true democracy we follow the rule of law and the system is firmly based on checks and balances. Your President was already given the lesson... I just wonder when he'll get it!


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