Romain Gary Earl W. Foell - Essay

Earl W. Foell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It seems strange that the publicists escorting ["The Roots of Heaven"] to its American debut have not compared it to "Moby Dick." M. Gary is not an imitator of Melville, but this latest, deep-searching work of his has many points of similarity to the American classic.

Elephants, rather than whales, are the subject. But they are treated, a la Melville, on two levels—both as symbols and as straightforward noble mammals. M. Gary's hero, Morel, is, like Ahab, a man possessed. What's more, following Morel in his pachyderm-obsessed mission is as motley a collection of adventurers, misanthropes, idealists, and mixed nationalities as ever sailed on the Pequod. Morel's expedition, like Ahab's, is punitive in nature. And both books are a complex mixture of gripping physical action and rather prolix metaphysical search….

M. Gary manages to say a lot about the march of civilization in Africa, about man's extinction of the other species, about freedom, about idealism, about African nationalism, about race, about communism, about almost every crucial point of contemporary life. And, yes, about elephants….

As writing, "The Roots of Heaven" is inexplicably up and down. Its opening pages are almost opaque with prolixity. Dialogue between characters runs more to monologue lasting for pages. Sentences are peculiarly convoluted. The story is recounted by a narrator speaking to a Jesuit missionary friend—a device that leads to confusing subquotes and mistaken identity.

Once beyond this frame into the picture proper, M. Gary … [is] all succinctness. The style is graphic, sardonically brilliant, and clear.

As to content, the novel … is an intellectual challenge in many directions. Its blunt ironies probe many of the weaknesses of East and West, of colonial and nationalist. But in exploring the moral worth of man, and his spiritual growth, it appears to be content to grasp not the main "roots of heaven" but merely a handful of the nearer capillaries.

Earl W. Foell, "On Elephants and Other Matters," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1958 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 23, 1958, p. 11.