Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

• Book Title: The Bafut Beagles
• Author: Durrell, Gerald
• ISBN: 0140012664
• Publisher: Penguin Books
• Year Published: 1971

This book chronicles Gerald Durrell's animal collecting expedition to the British Cameroon, in the late 1940's. It has interesting characters, human and animal. The portrait of the chief of Bafut is a stunning character study, and the country and the people are described with fondness. Durrell writes dancing monkeys, a midnight frog hunt, the night he taught the chief to dance the Conga, his group of hunters and their assorted pack of hunting dogs (the beagles), and the joys and inconvenience of keeping a large collection of wild animals.

This book was first published in 1954 but the actual collecting trip must have been in the late 40s. The Africa presented here is an anthropological journal. Durrell is respectful of the Africans and their culture, but this does not prevent him from sitting down and getting repeatedly sloshed with the local king. Durrell never refers to the people of Bafut as savages but the 'Bafut beagles' of the title refers to both the mongrel dogs that help him to collect animals and the Bafut hunters. He recounts that the hunters are superstitious, but he never stereotypes them. He communicates with the people of Bafut in pidgin English.

Durrell's fondness for Africa, its people and the animals pervades this narrative. He presents himself in a classic combination of self-deprecating humor, oddity, earthiness, but finally practicality and competence.

A native ruler known as the Fon, whom the D.O. said Durrell must be sure to get on his side if he hoped to succeed, ruled this grassland kingdom. The best way to do that was to prove he could carry his liquor!

As always, his love of "all creatures great and small" shows through even during such catastrophe as when he is bitten by what he thinks was a harmless blind snake, but he tells his cook, "'e get eye," a thing no member of the supposed species ever possessed. The best scenes are those in where the Fon appears roguish, irrepressible, and an indiscriminate lover of drink in every kind and combination, but he still proves to be the best collaborator, an animal collector could hope for--and a lover of the outdoors as well. Clad only in a loincloth and armed with a spear, he takes Durrell to see the evening manifestation of a colony of galagos, tiny arboreal creatures locally known as shillings.

All Durrell's books are great fun, but this is one of the best. This is one book I keep reading over and over again.