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The Roots of Heaven
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1001 book reviews > The Roots of Heaven -Romain Gary

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Kristel (kristelh) | 3882 comments Mod
Read 2017. This is my second book by Romain Gary and I really enjoy his writing. This book, written in 1956, is a post war book that examines what it takes to survive. This is a tale of Morel, a French dentist that has come to French Equatorial Africa to campaign for the elephants which are in danger of extinction. This is shortly after WWII, colonialism is reaching its end in Africa and the people of Africa are seeking independence. We have various characters; missionaries, anthropologists, prostitutes, gun runners, hunters, deserters. Morel is considered crazy by most but he also rises to legendary status. He is hero, traitor, and dangerous and a tool to be used by others. Many questions arose for me while reading this book. Such questions as, do we have to sacrifice nature for development? If we love nature do we hate man? Those Africans seeking freedom, are they really seeking freedom or have they already been tainted by westernization. Are they sacrificing their own culture for westernization without realizing.

I loved this book a lot. There are different voices that tell this story about Morel and his campaign for elephants.
Here are some quotes I wrote down.
"weight of memories which was oppressing him in his solitude"
"move a little away from the flames in order to regain the company of the stars."
"as for Morel...Everything has been said about him, 'a man who has gone even further into loneliness than othrs.

"It seems the elephants Morel was trying to save were purely imaginary and symbolic, a parable as they say, and that the poor bastard was really defending the old human rights, the rights of man.

"The years of isolation in the depths of the jungle have no power against the tenacious hope, and that a hundred acres of land at the height of the rainy season are easier to clear than are certain intimate nooks of our soul."

"...,patience was ceasing to be a virtue and was becoming a luxury he could less and less afford."

"Islam calls that 'the roots of heaven' and to the Mexican Indian 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. A need for protection and company, from which obstinate people like Morel try to escape by mean of petition, fight committees, by trying to take the protection of the species in their own hands."

"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."

"when you live too long you end up knowing nobody" and "where there are elephants, there I go free"

The book references that a nation must give up something of its nature for its freedom; for America it was the bison, for Russia-the wolves and for Africa, the elephant. Is that so, why does that have to be? It also mentions that a good news story (there is a lot about journalism in this book) will sell magazines such as a story about killing helpless turtles for turtle soup boost sales of the magazine but did it really effect the sale of turtle soup?

So this story will appeal to each person on a personal basis. For some it is about animal rights, for others it is about dignity and for another it is colonialism. For me, it was about survival and I was most reminded of Man's Search for Meaning Viktor E. Frankl.
Rating: 4.75. This rating is objective, my personal experience of this book after completing it and thinking about it is probably a 5.


Amanda Dawn | 933 comments I read this for a reading the world challenge as well. I loved it and also gave it 5 stars. I think Kristel did a great job describing the plot. My appreciation of it extended to both the literal and allegorical level, and I really fell into the prose. I’ve worked in ecology labs where the people get really invested in conservation field work (sadly I haven’t gotten to do any yet) so I’ve known a few “Morel’s” (of the whale variety instead of the elephant variety), and I completely understand the mindset. I get very passionate about conservation as well, so I’ve always put in the back of my mind I could have a life like this someday, so there was an element of fantasy here for me, as well as connection to the issue.

This book also works as an extended metaphor for the fight to save the spirit of the freedom of humanity, and I thought it worked well on this level as well. The spectre of WWII and Nazi war crimes loom over the narrative and several characters personal stories, making the connection potent. As well, the backdrop of end of colonial Africa leans into this by exploring how both colonialism and neocolonialism as African Independence movements plays into this theme of human subjugation.

I’m looking forward to reading his other work now, including “Promise at Dawn” which is also on the list.


message 3: by Hilde (last edited May 18, 2020 05:42AM) (new)

Hilde (hilded) | 342 comments I haven’t read this one, but I absolutely loved The Life Before Us, which he published under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. It’s not a list book, but I think it should be. Highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet.

The Roots of Heaven is a bit hard to track down it seems, my library doesn’t have it and I haven’t found an affordable copy online. The Life Before Us is however translated twice to Norwegian, so that one is easily available here in Europe at least.


message 4: by Gail (last edited Sep 24, 2021 07:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 1234 comments The Roots of Heaven is a very readable story of a white man in black Africa fighting his own demons and attempting to bring the plight of elephants, who are being slaughtered for sport, to the attention of the world. Although there are some parallels to Conrad, the tone is very different, with a clear spiritual dimension inherent in attempting to save something greater than oneself. The elephants are both a metaphor for independence and a representation of what is lost under colonial rule.
The book is full of natural splendor rather than the dark "horrors" of Conrad, but the whole book turns around the nature of human loneliness and the bitter defeat when one realizes that one's fellow man can not rise above his own wants and needs.
In addition, the book was written after World War II and the independence movements in Africa were launching with much world wide sympathy. There was hope that African nation states run by Africans would be able to find their innocence again. The book pointedly makes clear that the colonial Western powers had so polluted the Africans with their ideas that the African rulers would move forward with exploitation rather than backwards to the old tribal values.
All the primary characters are lost souls but they represent different aspects of the modern condition.
The form of the book is unique in that it is a telling within a telling, one man under the African stars tells another all he knows about our Main characters, specifically Morel, the elephant champion, and Minna, a woman devotee. Yet, much is related that neither man could know and some of it is third hand or focuses on a different character altogether. The book also has a strange repetitive nature that at first seems like the fault of a poor editor and slowly comes to be the nature of human existence.
The book is written by a white man about the white conditions of the time but still the reader is haunted by the repeated reminder that to the natives, elephants were simply meat. The only way to save the elephants was to feed the people, but that was never an option. A white man could not save the Africans from Western exploitation, and can not save the elephants from the world.

Quotes: "How can we talk of progress when we are still destroying all around us, life's most beautiful and noble manifestations."

"He was brandishing his fists in a gesture which expressed, more than anything else, the impotence of fists"

"The idea of beauty of the elephants was the idea of a man who had had enough to eat"

I gave it 5 stars.

A depressing post script is that the book used the figure 20 thousand elephants shot a year. In 2000 there were only 20 thousand elephants left around Lake Chad. There are now 500 elephants in the Chad national park which is not near Lake Chad. 40 million people live around Lake Chad and the amount of water has diminished by 93 percent in the last two decades. This is a humanitarian crisis that has assisted Boko Harem's to rise to power. The elephants do not stand a chance....and perhaps neither do we


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