It would be hard to fault Gerald Durrell’s writing or his philosophy: “throughout my life I have rarely if ever achieved what I wanted by attacking it in a logical fashion.” Thus he sets off for Africa with wife and friends in various states of tow, to gather a zoo full of animals – not knowing where he’ll put them when he returns to his native England.
This is a zesty, readable book, full of the humorous animal anecdotes that Durrell’s fans expect, such as the picture of the unflappable hero carrying a rare baby mongoose in his shirt and arriving at a distant outpost with scratches on his belly and mongoose urine staining his shirt. His host simply said, “I say, do you play canasta?”
Several lively episodes involve the attempts made by Durrell and his team to film the animals he collected, such as the skittish chevrotain, an aquatic and generally quite tame little antelope that astonished her keepers by heading for high ground whenever she was released from her cage. When caught, she went “into her usual trancelike state, with half closed eyes.” The result of a day’s attempts to film was “fifty feet of film, all of which showed her standing stock still outside her box, preparatory to dashing away.” Then there was Woody, a camera-shy owl who turned his back on photographer Durrell no matter where he tried to station himself.
A bit more problematic are the many descriptions of Durrell’s encounters with Africans, which while not racist to any great degree, do reflect a different sort of relationship to the culture than many Americans would find palatable. However the author is a man who was born in India in 1925 when the British Raj held full sway, and his particular kind of liberalism would naturally appear different to us. The word “paternalism” covers it nicely, and if you can dodge the issues inherent in that you can laugh and enjoy this delightful story which ends with Durrell fighting the local authorities back in the UK for a space to house what became known as “Durrell’s Menagerie.” This struggle cannot have been advanced by Durrell’s habit of driving his Lambretta scooter through the south English countryside with the chimp Chomondely in the sidecar. Chomondely learned how to open the gas cap when stopped at a petrol station, and later remembered the location of his favorite pub – Chomondely’s favorite, not the author’s.
Anyone who has read Durrell’s books in the past will be pleased with this offering – a must for exotic animal lovers. Kind of like an evening watching the Animal Channel.