Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2

The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.

Born in Lithuania, but raised in France, Romain Gary (Kacew) was an aviator, decorated WWII pilot and a writer who lead a life of adventure and sometimes deception, once marrying American actress Jean Seberg and finally committing suicide in 1980. Thus, The Roots of Heaven, translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin, is also a bit of a “bravado” book, but with a rather delicately-handed and surprisingly honest message inside. Gary sets his book at Fort Lamy, Chad, where different people of various nationalities, trades and purposes flock together, driven by wonder, desire, guilt, shame or simply by a sense of adventure, only then to discover that Africa has this innate ability to get everyone equalised, exposing the true fragility of humanity.

There is nothing in literature like a protagonist with a burning passion, ambition and conviction that blinds him or her to everything else and which they like to put into action for the benefit of all and in spite of the impossible stakes raised against them. In The Roots of Heaven, this protagonist is Morel, who survived a concentration camp and now is a crusading environmentalist, “a man who had gone even further into loneliness than others” [Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 7] and who now stands up for something different in this world – the lives of elephants. Since we only get to know Morel from rumours and second-hand accounts, there is an intrigue maintained around his persona and we, like the rest of the world in the story, may question and debate Morel’s true character and intentions. This move by Gary also means that it becomes a bit difficult to distinguish facts from opinions, but this is also where the charm of this novel lies. Initially, Morel wants everyone around him to sign his petition to stop the hunting of elephants, but when that move fails to work, he starts taking a more direct action. The question then becomes – where will this lead him?

[Morel’s] madness must consist in just that, a certain basic inability to be discouraged, to despair…[there is] this extremism of hope, which no contrary evidence seemed able to destroy” [Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 314, 316].

The reality is that, after the World War II, the world is still counting the human cost of the war, and there are thousands and thousands of homeless and starving people in the world who have gone through unimaginable hell and suffering, and who are now in need of attention and care. In this light, the protection of the world’s fauna should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Habib, the owner of the club Techadien in Fort Lamy, has just these “rational” thoughts in the story as he indulges in his illegal activities. His protégé Monsieur De Viers also loves to hunt for pleasure (and elephant ivory is a profitable business, too). Only a German woman Minna, who suffered much during the siege in Berlin, signs Morel’s petition for the protection of elephants and is already willing to go through fire and water for him…or for the elephants? It becomes difficult to tell.

When Romain Gary wrote his account of Morel, the international ecological movement for the protection of the world’s fauna was still in its relative infancy, and it was not until 1989 that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna was adopted to regulate the ban of international trade in species under threat. The WWF organisation now states that “in recent years, at least 20, 000 elephants have been killed in Africa each year for their tusks” and “their population declined by 62% between 2002-2011”. Given these statistics, the book and Morel’s cause never really lost their relevance.

“Those great herds are after all the last symbol of liberty left among us. It’s something that’s fast disappearing, from more points of view than one…I defy anyone to look upon them [elephants] without a sense of wonder. Their very enormity, their clumsiness, their giant statue, represent a mass of liberty that sets you dreaming. They’re…yes, they’re the last individuals[Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 260].

The protection of elephants in the story may also stand for something else, such as to symbolise the salvation of humanity, and the eradication of elephants – colonial selfishness and exploitation, which can then be contrasted with the “old-school” idealism of Morel: “it seems that the elephants Morel was trying to save were partly imaginary and symbolic, a parable… [Morel might have been] really defending the old human rights, the rights of men” [Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 6].

The negative aspects of The Roots of Heaven is that its main message overshadows the narrative; the book overstates its main point (there is much repetition); and Gary’s writing is sometimes so dense that we can hardly piece together the plot. The author’s writing is like some dense jungle vegetation and we have to feel our way through to get the story straight. And, sometimes, through this narrative jungle, we come across a wonderful elephant – which is some surprisingly astute philosophical insight, such as “In my life I’ve done more suffering than thinking, though I believe one understands better that way” [Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 7] or “Decency, a quality of a man obviously without great ambition, without genius, without any magnificent possibilities, yet all the same a quality before which humanity ought to have hesitated longer than it had” [Gary/Griffin, 1956/57: 76].

The Roots of Heaven is a “slow-burn” adventure story where the preservation of elephants takes the central stage in a broader political situation in Africa just after the WWII. It is a surprisingly deep, lucid and philosophical novel that shines with special conviction and beauty, and whose elusive central hero is probably the most vivid literary invention of the 20th century French literature.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

    1. Thanks, I will check out this blogger’s recommendations! No, I don’t think this book is this “absolutely “must-read” classic”, buy I have to say it exceeded my expectations.

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  1. Nice review. You really did your homework. This time period and geography is so convoluted. Europe and Africa are two things that do not belong together, in my mind at least. Maybe it’s because I apply the mental heuristic of ‘civilization’ to Europe (France) and ‘Nature’ to Africa. Shame on me, it’s never so simple. But it scares me away from many great works of literature involving the two. The Roots of Heaven is no exception. But I can at least read it vicariously through your excellent review.

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