Jan 5, 2016

The Bafut Beagles

by Gerald Durrell

In this delightful book Durrell describes a trip he made to the Cameroons -probably in the late forties- to collect wild animals to take back to England (for a zoo or his own collection I am not sure). He plunges straight into the story without much introduction or explanation, but happily I have read enough of his other books that I recognized the context immediately. Having gained the support of the local headsman, the Fon, via copious drinking bouts and gathered a group of eager hunters and mongrel dogs (the "beagles" of title) he avidly gathers up as many animal "specimens" as possible. This is done by paying nice sums to local people for what they bring him, as well as going out on his own hunting forays. Several times he ran into difficulties convincing the people that an animal he knew of actually existed, as they had never seen one, or that an animal could be safely approached and caught, as they thought some innocent creatures deadly. (Yet they often handled very poisonous snakes with a seemingly careless attitude!) I really enjoyed the story, the straightforward humor and the descriptions of the wildlife. Some species I had never heard of, or didn't recognize right away because the name Durrell used for them was unfamiliar. It took me a minute to realize that the galago is a bushbaby, and I think the colorful skink the natives feared so much must have been a fire skink (going on his description of its appearance alone). I find the agama lizard just as beautiful, although it didn't get much mention (too common) and definitely the most curious creature of all is the hairy frog (also known as the horror frog)! Also described are several kinds of monkeys, flying mice, bush pigs, the golden cat, rock hyrax, numerous excitable squirrels, cane rats, snakes and many others.

At first I found reading the book a bit awkward and uncomfortable, as he communicated with the natives in pidgin English and there are entire conversations written this way (reminiscent of certain parts of Peter Pan). It felt insulting, but there were a few times where moved by sudden excitement or indignation the author would burst out a sentence or two of grammatically correct English, which baffled his native hunting companions. So I guess the people actually spoke that way, and partly through the book I was able to accept this and just read it. The depictions of local customs and characters (especially the Fon himself) were really well-drawn and add a lot to the book. In one particularly funny incident Durrell witnessed a young man and a girl arguing hotly in the street, pursued by an old woman who was beating the man (while he completely ignored her and continued scolding the girl). Durrell watched the charade with interest and being unable to understand what they said, invented in his head a rather elaborate story involving infidelity and witchcraft. Then he asked a passerby what was going on and found out it was simply an irate husband who came home to find no dinner waiting for him, and his mother-in-law got into into the resulting fray! Durrell was disappointed to find out it was just a domestic quarrel, but laughed at himself for thinking otherwise.

Rating: 4/5     254 pages, 1954

more opinions:
Suz's Space
Everything Distills Into Reading


Cath said...

I read this one a few years ago as The Overloaded Ark. Enjoyed it very much and hope to read his biography by Douglas Botting this year.

Jeane said...

Oh, so it's been published under two different titles? Dang, I'll have to cross Overloaded Ark off my list then (I've begun compiling one of all the Durrell books I want to read, but it will get a whole lot shorter if it turns out more of those are duplicates w/different titles to the same book!

Cath said...

Apparently so. When I saw your title I thought, 'Oooh... one I haven't heard of.' But I started to read your review and realised it's the same book. 'Although' Fantastic Fiction has them listed as two separate books, one published in 1953 the other 1954 but I'm darn sure he didn't go to The Cameroons two years in a row. LOL!

Jeane said...

Nope, actually he did! I just read up about it. His first visit to the Cameroons was also his first book, Overloaded Ark. During the course of that stay, someone suggested he visit the Bafut area, so he went back a year later (The Bafut Beagles). And there's a third trip written up in A Zoo in My Luggage - or maybe that one mostly describes the journey home on board ship? I wonder if there's a volume published of all three books in one? Wikipedia has a complete list- dang, he's got some thirty nonfiction books published about collecting trips and zoo management, plus another nine fiction (I've read one). So much more Durrell to find and read! I'm pretty stoked about that.

Cath said...

LOL! Well how about that??? I had no idea. Thank you for checking. I read A Zoo in My Luggage as a teen. I have a small collection of his books and the two I'd like to read this year are The Whispering Land and The Drunken Forest. I adore all the lovely little illustrations the books have inside. Yes, there're lots of books and some nice children's ones. I have one about puppy and a zoo. Very sweet.