Reading ‘The Roots of Heaven’ and discovering… the roots of heaven

The book trade seems to be driven by the concept of the bestseller – that at a given time, a given book will connect with a wide audience. What interests me more is the phenomenon where a specific book connects with an individual in a way that perhaps no other book will. These are the moments when a book enters your life like divine intervention, where it speaks to you in a profound way.

It is even stranger when a book does so at a particular time, when that same book at another time did not. I am now rereading a book I had read five to ten years ago. At the time, I found it a bit frustrating and disappointing. Now I’m reading those very same words and I am awestruck.

When I read Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven originally, I had done so after happening on a comment by Colin Wilson, who was once famous and influential for having written a book called The Outsider. (Look it up, read it.) Wilson said The Roots of Heaven was one of the classic novels of the Twentieth Century. I had high expectations, but the book just seemed unnecessarily jumbled to me, ruining the drama of the story by the constantly shifting perspectives. Somehow the basic structural device of the book had passed me by.

An interesting fact about my original reading of the book is that I had found it second hand, in a mass market paperback edition. The type was tiny and the book physically tatty. I had assumed that such things don’t matter, that it’s all about the string of words and the meaning they carry. But over time, I had begun to wonder about this. So for this reading I got hold of a different copy of the book.

I have, since that original reading, read a fair number of books by Romain Gary. Some I loved, some intrigued me, some left me cold and at least one I could not finish. Unlike many writers (and, I suspect, most commercially successful ones) Gary avoided writing the same book over and over again, leaving behind a somewhat spotty bibliography, though one where the highs are Everest-like. Despite their unevenness, a very distinctive sensibility informs all his work.

Whether the very different reading experience I’m having now is a result of having a physically more attractive book in my hands or whether it is because of my deeper appreciation of Gary’s philosophical slant, I cannot say. Perhaps I had undergone some significant psychological development in the meantime I cannot yet identify. Whichever it is, reading The Roots of Heaven now is nothing like it was before.

The book no longer seems confused to me. The entire story is framed via retellings, different bit players in the events relating their experiences of the central events to other bit players. It’s a bit like those David Hockney snapshot collages. You get glimpses of events from different angles – you see things from everyone’s point of view, except those of the main protagonist, Morel.

He’s a man who seemingly defected from his own species, he has gone over to the elephants, leading a crazy campaign to outlaw elephant hunting. Dogs are no longer big enough to be our companions, he claims, we need something bigger, like elephants, those magnificent symbols of liberty. This sets of a dramatic chain of events in French colonial Chad, a decade or so after World War Two.

Apart from its other qualities, The Roots of Heaven is a very Green book in that it has conservation and man’s destruction of nature at its core, at a time when such issues could still be argued without the blinding emotional charge it has acquired over the last 50 years.

I’m reading The Roots of Heaven exceedingly slowly. Because on every page, I find descriptions, characters and ideas that give me pause. I find myself with the urge to write down quotes from the book and am stopped only by innate laziness and the realisation that I’ll end up with a manuscript about a quarter as long as the whole book.

Maybe you’ll struggle to find this book now. It has long ceased to be a bestseller. And even if you find it, you may not connect with it. Or it may be the wrong time for you, as it used to be for me. But, god, when that connection takes place, reading becomes the root of heaven.

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