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