Sometimes, in reaction to today’s state of rapid publication of almost avalanche proportions, it seems wise to pause and scrounge through those books purchased from a used bookstore’s bin of near-giveaways or that rolling cart parked by the shop’s front door and filled with titles whose remainder marks are fading or who have outlived their ability to ever again be picked off a shelf. Such books are usually titles and/or authors we’ve never heard of, or titles and authors we, at some point in our reading lives, earnestly intended to read – someday.
Dreaming Jungles by Michel Rio is a book I came across last weekend. It was in a box stuck in the far corner of my bedroom closet, removed out of necessity to run a TV cable through the closet wall in order to link the cable with the WiFi router in the next room. I live in an environment of encroaching technology, a technology often taking up residence long before my ability to make reasonable use of it. Books, on the other hand, come without cords or even manuals; in this case, Dreaming Jungles, authored by a Frenchman, came sans manuel. Très bon!
Books do not require passwords. They do not have on-off buttons. When it’s time to stop reading, the book doesn’t have to be put on “sleep,” “hibernate” or “shut down.” Just drop in a bookmark and close it up, no questions asked. An hour with a book does not require batteries or electricity.
And so we come to Dreaming Jungles, out of the dark since boxed up with so many others in a closet filled with good intentions. The book was first published in France in 1985, while the edition packed away in my closet was a Pantheon Modern Writers Original, published in 1987 and translated into English by William R. Carlson. While the cable guys were doing their thing, all I had to do was plug in my brain and its ability to imagine, and open the book. It turned out that I quite liked Dreaming Jungles. The language was a bit dense, but it was interesting and engaging on a lot of levels.
The protagonist is a young and rather arrogant Frenchman traveling to Africa in 1913 to study chimps purely by observation. He encounters an Englishwoman who is also studying primates, working on a Darwinian theory of survival versus altruism. The woman is beautiful, brilliant and horny. Before you can blink an eye, the young man has been seduced, but instead of cigarettes, the act is followed by philosophical discourse. Dreaming Jungles has a good story with lots of colonized African names and places I’d never heard of. It makes some very pithy observations about human life (as well as chimpanzees). Michel Rio can hold his own where long sentences are concerned, although I never knew what role translation may have played in that, but they were almost always interesting sentences. As a book reviewer I found the discussions surrounding the value of Art as opposed to Science as salient today as probably thought to be in 1913: “What leaves me more perplexed is specialized criticism – whether of Art or literature – that false knowledge elevated to the dignity of a discipline.” So much for the critics. It is also blessedly short, under 150 pages. Since I never studied French, I have no way of knowing the quality of Carlson’s translation, but the book made me wonder about things beyond the story. What has the author written lately? Is the book somewhat typical of French fiction? Is the publisher still in business?
The answers were, of course, at my fingertips. I put the book down and picked up my mini lap top, which was in “sleep” mode and opened it up to Google search. Let’s see, Africa 1913, it’s a start.