Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
First published: 1932
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Religioscientific narrative
Time of work: 1930's
Locale: The French steamer Dumbea, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal
Joel, an American naturalist
The Padre, an Anglican priest
This book is the only semifictional work of the late Homer W. Smith, at one time chairman of the New York University School of Medicine and a noted physiologist whose major scientific accomplishment was "The Kidney: Structure in Health and Disease." KAMONGO, though cast in thin fictional form, is not a novel in any conventional sense, and its story is relatively simple. Its two characters are Joel, an American naturalist, and the Padre, an English clergyman who has been stationed at Tanganyika. They strike up an acquaintance aboard the steamer on which both are returning home, and Joel relates his experiences in catching Kamongo, the lungfish, at Lake Victoria to the priest. The lungfish is of interest to Joel because it represents an unsuccessful experiment with life in the Devonian Age four hundred million years before. However, the lungfish could not survive on land because he had not perfected legs to sustain himself out of water. Consequently, the creature was compelled to remain stuck away in prehistoric mud. Joel's spirited account of the capture of Kamongo forms the first part of the book, the adventurous and by far the most satisfying part.
The remaining portion of the narrative consists of a debate between the two men. For Joel, the lungfish represents certain aspects of crowded conditions on earth, with the stronger elements constantly pushing out and even destroying the weaker. The lungfish could not maintain himself because he could not compete with more robust and vicious creatures. Also, Joel claims, the lungfish was a product of overspecialization, one too highly individualized to adjust. As for the evolutionary process of which the lungfish forms some link, Joel cannot find any evidence that it was all upward, and he rejects the Padre's assumption that it brought a quality of divinity to man.
The Padre cannot match Joel, the mechanist, in logic, for he has a layman's awe of the scientist with his impressive array of facts and proofs, and thus he has no ready rebuttal for Joel's claim that the protoplasmic jelly, the complex mass from which comes the cell of life itself is motivated for existence by nothing but a continuing will to live.
In such a vein, the conversation progresses as the ship journeys through the Suez Canal into Port Said for anchorage. The Padre is unable to take a stand upon any moral or religious ground that Joel will allow. Joel even scolds his companion for attempting to seek a purpose in man's life when, as he explains, it is nothing more than a stream that flows on and on; and his own dour comment on the Padre's need to believe that life must have some goal is simply the fact that, like the lungfish, man will perhaps turn out to be no more than a blind alley in the evolutionary scheme of things.
KAMONGO is a debate on science and faith, cast in science-fictional form. Its two characters are not developed in fictional terms or even characterized except in broad general strokes. Generally the story is contained in the extended discussion between the two men, each of whom represents a special point of view in the issue of scientific doubt and religious belief. The book has some excellent descriptive scenes, and in the account of the ship's passage through the Red Sea and ultimately into the harbor at Port Said, there are strong suggestions of Joseph Conrad. The author, however, clearly is interested in the colloquy between the two men; and in making the debate so patently one-sided, without allowing the Padre to be a full-voiced exponent of his religious convictions, Smith has seriously limited the range of the book. However, one can understand the appeal of the work for an earlier generation, for in the 1930's, people were still attempting to attach moral implications to evolutionary theory. A more disillusioned generation of readers, accustomed to the incredible accomplishments of contemporary science, takes that argument to be merely academic; and Joel's scientific reasoning, from which eloquence is not missing, has a slightly archaic and quaint flavor, even though his views carry conviction.