Saturday, November 28, 2009

Books: Everyday people.

Looking through the graveyard of genre lit, the literary genre I think I would have least picked to pull a Black Lantern would have been that "jungle adventure" genre. Spawned of explorers tales and given a literary template by Robinson Crusoe, the fine genre of white adventurers subduing the natural order (along with any natives who might be at home there) was later perfected for the colonial era by Haggard and Kipling, and finally recast as a pop confection by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It isn't just the problematic racism of these texts that give us pause, there's a fundamental belief in the triumph of reason and order in these books that, as early as Conrad's quintessential deconstruction of the genre in Heart of Darkness, struck many readers as hollow and, in the case of pulp engines like Burroughs, unearned. Indeed, after Heart of Darkness, the primal jungle was recast not as ground to be conquered, but as the graveyard of civilization and reason. When we ponder the fate of white men trapped in a green hell, we're more likely to think of Col. Kurtz than we are of Allan Quartermain.

And yet, two of this years best novels have been smart, literate, exciting takes on the fatally discredited genre. First there was the new English translation of Albert Sánchez Piñol's Pandora in the Congo. ASP's novel intertwines three versions of the same tale: a pulp hack author's retelling of a disastrously failed jungle expedition, interrupted with the "director commentary" of author explaining what he understood to be the truth of the tale he was freely adapting, framed with the true story of the expedition's collapse. The brilliance of Pandora is that it simultaneously delivers the pulpy goods while at the same time adding layers of narrative self-awareness that, at once, deepen our connection to the familiar pulp pleasures and bring them to the surface for genuine self-critique.

Second is the curious Torston Krol's The Dolphin People. A Swiss Family Robinson for the post-Cannibal Holocaust set, The Dolphin People - the first novel by reclusive Queensland Aussie ex-pat Torsten Krol - is a savage revisionist take on the jungle adventure tale.

Fleeing the carnage of post-World War II Germany, Erich sails to Venezuela with his mother and his younger brother. Erich's father, a tank commander in the Nazi army, died on the Russian front. Erich's uncle, a death camp doctor on the lam in South America, has asked for the hand of his sister-in-law for marriage. Erich's mother, not wanting the boys to be fatherless and eager to leave the devastation of Germany, agrees. After a quick marriage ceremony, the doctor and his new family fly in the Amazon, headed towards the oil fields were Erich's father acts as the on-site medical officer. A storm brings their plane down and they are rescued by a native tribe who mistake them for magically transformed dolphins (the river dolphins of the Amazon are bright pink in color).

The good news is that a German sociologist, a professor who left to study the tribe years before the rise of the Nazi and the advent of war, lives with the tribe. He acts as the family's interpreter and guide. The bad news is that the family quickly finds out that demi-god-like status is a gilded cage. The family most constantly negotiate the complex social structures and expectations of the tribe, all the while maintaining the fiction of divinity, or face the the tribes most likely fatal displeasure. It's not ruining the novel to tell you now that it doesn't work. It spectacularly and utterly doesn't work.

Krol has said that the fictional tribe at the heart of the story is a composite. Presumably to stave off accusations of exploitation or sensationalism, the author's tried to make a claim for the novel's realism. I understand the impulse, but I think it's a bit disingenuous: For all the research he might have done, this book's heart beats to the tune of Modo Cane, Cannibal Holocaust, and similarly exploitative flicks. Krol's narrative features Nazi's, death by piranha, cannibalism of the death, extended drug freak out sequences, hermaphroditism, unnecessary surgery, bloodshed, sex, and as much excess as one could reasonably ask for. The difference is that Krol's book doesn't take the cheap cop out that the trite shockers of the exploitation era did. Krol's jungle doesn't show everybody to be savages. Instead, it show's everybody to be human, for better or worse. It's this genuine sympathy for human weakness that separates Krol's debut from the exploitation genre it shares so much with. It's also what makes it a great read.