'In your heart you believe that it is better this way. We all do. It began - as it always begins - in blood and slaughter; it becomes conquest and slavery; and by way of shame and in need of disguise, it pulled on the robes of religion and then the suit and tie of the market; until eventually it came to... conservationism.'
Butterflies yesterday, ants today and thus sayeth one of the characters in Edward Docx's latest novel The Devil's Garden, and I suppose one day someone will be able to write a book about travelling up a river through some rather menacing rain forest or other to reach the point where as yet unknown tribes still live in the impassable jungle interior...
'Our boat chugged the sullen backwater. We were travelling upstream but this no longer felt like a journey back to the earliest beginnings of the world, rather to its end.'
and I won't automatically think ' Oh right, Heart of Darkness stuff going on here then' or be searching for signs of post-post colonial literature or something.
It hasn't happened yet and it didn't seem likely with Edward Docx's book given that Dr Forle finds himself drawn 'deeper and deeper into a world of mystery and violence involving remote Indian tribes'. Somehow I just can't stop myself thinking of that wonderfully ambiguous Conradian moment in Heart of Darkness, when someone is faced with dinner...
'the lumps of some stuff that looked like half-cooked dough of a dirty lavender colour'
and my 2am Open University essay-writing imagination had that marked as human and for consumption.
Dr Forle (hmm fall?? you see how can I not think Conrad) the first person narrator, is a rather buttoned-up scientist, a myrmecologist (ant expert) who actually finds himself working at the remote scientific station along the Amazon with a team researching the complex social structures of the ant world. Ants apparently blindingly good at co-operation in a way that the humans involved in this novel might not be and world supremacy and survival against all the odds seemingly well within their capabilities given that according to Dr Forle's work in progress
'The combined dry weight of all the ants on Earth is about the same as that of Homo Sapiens.'
and the total ant population is underestimated at ten thousand trillion.
Poor old Dr Forle, nursing his 'blistered heart' and thinking the rain forest will be the right place to escape from the largely unknown details of a relationship breakdown in order to progress his life's work.
'I made a false floor to fireproof myself from what feelings burned below; and the greater the heat within me, the greater my effort to seal it off. Outwardly I grew colder. Science, method...'
By page 13 there's some prescient advice Dr Forle could well do with remembering on page 235
'When a man is wounded in the river, he must swim as best he can upstream from his own blood if he is to have any chance.'
and whatever you do DO NOT LET YOUR EYE STRAY TO THE FINAL LINE OF THE BOOK until you get there. Mine accidentally did and I could have kicked myself. But then when you finish the book be sure to go back to Dr Forle's little introduction and read it again just as a reminder.
But Dr Forle hasn't reckoned on a jungle love-interest or the sudden arrival of a boat-load of rather menacing individuals headed by a Colonel and a judge who are ostensibly trying to register all the local inhabitants prior to an election. Given that we're talking unknown and undiscovered tribes this is quite a tall order and obviously all is not what it seems.
Human nature is examined under Edward Docx's microscope just as carefully as are the ants, and the tension for this reader felt initially understated and on a par with the seemingly turn a blind-eye approach of Dr Forle. With a bit of head-burying-in-sand our doctor just hopes the problems will go away when of course they don't, they escalate and as he found himself increasingly drawn into the dangers and the violence so was I. It's an object lesson in how to find yourself unwittingly pitched into the middle of a war zone without really trying, and when the potential consequences dawn on Doctor Forle he is really going to worry much less about saving his hard drive when it's his skin that's at risk.
I see it's almost four years since I read and enjoyed Edward Docx's last novel set in a very chilly Russia, Self Help, which looking back I see felt like
'...a slow burner of a book that gets under your skin and takes hold as you follow the undulating course of all these lives as they move towards an unexpected twist in the tale that I hadn't really seen coming.One of those twists that was clever enough to make me go back over the long and chilly Dostoevskyan Russian journey with some New York, Paris and London thrown in and interpret first thoughts into second thoughts and come to some quite different conclusions about everyone.'
A change of climate and perhaps the expectation might be that this book, with its shimmering heat and gallons of perspiration, might be even slower but not so. As the pace quickens so did my page-turning but not so fast that I wasn't taking in the rather clever wordsmithery of Edward Docx... one liners that stay in the mind
'...courage was only ever madness anointed.'
It's always interesting to read a book like The Devil's Garden about a place in the world seemingly dripping with menace and fear for some whilst being that safe-as-houses place of home and comfort for those who live there, and then to see how a writer juxtaposes those two worlds. Though the aggressors are of the local variety for which I heaved a sigh along the lines of 'at least it's not our fault', the issues have a far greater international import. This alongside the many correlations that bear scrutiny between the ant world and the human one (I won't extrapolate because making those connections happens very enjoyably as you read) and I couldn't help but reach the conclusion that we might as well just hand it all over to the ants now, they've got the right idea and there are just so many of them anyway...