The Roots of Heaven
by Romain Gary
"Morel is afflicted with too noble a conception of a man. He demands too much of human beings, and he refuses to compromise." (p 354)
"Ever since dawn the track had followed the hillside across a tangle of bamboos and elephant grass in which the horse and rides sometimes disappeared entirely; then the Jesuit's head would reappear above the yellow sea, with his big bony nose set above virile and smiling lips, and with those piercing eyes that carried in them far more suggestion of limitless horizons than of the pages of a breviary."
Thus opens Romain Gary's brilliant novel of passion and freedom; the passion of a man, Morel, for the freedom of elephants in equatorial Africa, and the passion for freedom of the natives led by a charismatic leader, Waitari, but above all the land where their passions and dreams exist, a place of limitless horizons and a beauty that is captured in the supremely engaging prose of Romain Gary.
At the heart of the story we find Morel and his passion for saving the elephants who are being killed by ivory hunters and tourists and the natives. The demonstration of his value of life lies at the heart of Gary’s novel. Its major expression can be found in the shape of African elephants as “life’s most beautiful and noble manifestations". The apparent theme of The Roots of Heaven is the protection of the African elephants; "Men are dying to preserve a certain splendor of life. Call it freedom, or dignity . . . They are dying to preserve a certain natural splendor." (p 60)
Throughout the whole novel, the motive of the African elephant symbolizing freedom is perpetually instilled in the reader. For instance, Morel claims in his petition against elephant hunting, that it's "time to show that we are capable of preserving this gigantic, clumsy, natural splendour which still lives in our midst . . . that there is still room among us for such a freedom”. The idea is repeated in many variations. And it is supported by the wisdom of the old pathfinder Idriss who explains that “when elephants exist, there is freedom”. But it is also a kind of metaphor for the memory of the holocaust that less than a decade earlier had affected so many including Morel himself who had been interned in a Concentration Camp. He first dreams of an idea that has its roots in the utmost individual oppression while in solitary confinement: “Three and a half feet by five, so not a hope of lying down — there were moments when I felt like banging my head against the wall to try and get out into fresh air” This is central to Morel's being, yet the absolute materialism of the concrete cell disappears behind the image of elephants.
With enemies on every side the elephants have no one to fight for them, that is until Morel takes up their cause and makes it his own. Midway through the novel Morel comments that "it was essential to attack the root of the problem, the protection of nature." Peer Qvist, one of several supporting characters that add depth to the story, responds, "Islam calls that 'the roots of heaven' and to the Mexican Indians it is the 'tree of life'--the thing that makes both of them fall on their knees and raise their eyes and beat their tormented breasts. . . Our needs--for justice, for freedom and dignity--are roots of heaven that are deeply embedded in our hearts, but of heaven itself men know nothing but the gripping roots . . ." (p 176)
Morel was not alone, he attracted other outlaws like Korotoro, a famous robber, but he most impressed the leader of the Oules, called Waitari. At the same time Waitari was impressed he would disparage Morel calling him "a pathetic idealist". Waitari, like Kenyatta and other tribal leaders across Africa, was well-educated and full of passion to lead his people. He said, "I want our voice to be heard in Asia, in Soviet Russia, in America, even in France . . . I am not speaking to the Oules." (p 107)
There is also the theme of political manipulation and the impact of public opinion. An American journalist and opinion maker, Ornando, represents all that is worst in that regard and, for better or worse, is of concern to the French colonial authority because he may sway American public opinion in favor of Morel. The novel teems with life and there are others throughout the novel like Abe Fields, the American photographer, Peer Qvist the naturalist, and Johnny Forsythe--characters and events which add layers to the story like a catalog of human nature. An undertone of nihilism surrounds the African nationalist movement while others try to hide the struggles for decolonization. Morel seems to exist beyond the petty bickering, in a sense his idealism and charisma makes him a larger than life character.
Perhaps Morel's struggle and much of the meaning of the novel is summed up in this passage:
"The fight to the death between men frustrated by a more and more enslaved or acquiescent existence, and the last and greatest live in image of liberty that still existed on earth, was being played our continuously day by day in the African forest.
But whatever the difficulties he was facing, he refused to compromise: it was essential that man should shoulder on his difficult road a supplementary burden, encumber himself with the ancient giants."
The Roots of Heaven demonstrates both the passion of one man and the passion of humanity for freedom in life and beyond. Accomplishing this requires concern for self, family, culture, and nature --encompassing the world around us.
Les Racines du ciel
I read this novel by Romain Gary as part of the Romain Gary Literature Month sponsored by Emma at Book Around the Corner. I encourage you to visit her site to find out more about Romain Gary and other fine authors.
View all my reviews