A Gorilla in a Guestroom : About the story
Gerard Durrel’s “A Gorilla in a Guestroom” is taken from his anthology Menagerie Manor which provides a fascinating account of what it means to be a lover of animals and dedicate one’s life to their conservation and well-being. Menagerie Manor is a collection of eight stories which deal with the setting up of the Jesrsey Zoological Park in Channel Island and provides an insider’s view of the particularities that go into the making of such noble and arduous a task.
Durrel’s witty style and keen observation makes the perusal of the story a thoroughly engaging affair and saves it from turning into a tedious account by a conservationist.
The story brings to light some very important aspects of animal conservation, some of which include dedication, accountability and passion which are demanded of a conservationist. It also brings to our notice the importance of awareness and sensitivity among the people not directly involved in conservation efforts and the importance their role in contributing to the same.
A Gorilla in a Guestroom : About the author
A famous British naturalist who travelled around the world promoting conservation of wildlife, Gerald Durrel was born on 7th January 1925 in Jamshedpur, India. Durrel’s father was a senior engineer who played a huge role in the construction of the Himalayan Railways. The Durrels moved to Britain in 1928 following which they constantly visited different parts of Europe. They stayed in the Greek island of Corfu and it was there that Durrel began collecting local fauna to keep as pets. This stay in Corfu was to culminate in books like My Family and Other Animals and the Garden of the Gods.
Following World War II, Durrel joined the Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire as a student keeper. Later, he set off on a trip to British Cameroons with Ornithologist John Yelland in 1947 which was the beginning of lifelong excursions and expeditions that would later make him a famous wildlife conservationist.
Durrel called himself a “champion of the small uglies” and his advocacy for wildlife conservation fully justified the title. 1958 saw him found the Jersey Zoological Park in the Channel Islands dedicated towards the conservation of endangered species. He took to writing books in order to support his conservation efforts which have given us many gems like The Corfu Trilogy, Zoo in my Luggage, Birds Beasts and Relatives and Menagerie Manor.
Durrel died on 38th January 1990.
A Gorilla in a Guestroom : Summary
A Gorilla in a Guestroom is a first person narrative recounted through the figure of Mr Durrel, an animal conservationist who is quite caught up in setting up a zoo in Channel Island. Mr Durrel’s life after the establishment of the zoo has been a particularly a busy one, which can be understood by the nature of letters the likes of which the account opens:
“Dear Mr Durrel ,
Could you please have our Rhesus monkey? He is growing so big and jumping on us from trees and doing damage and causing so much trouble. Already my mother has been in bed with the doctor three times…”
Being the sensitive conservationist he is, the narrator is convinced that they zoo “must cease to be a mere age-old of animals and start to contribute something towards the conservation of wildlife”. Try as he may, Mr Durrel is unable to choose an animal for conservation as the list of the animals that require conservation is a huge one. One fine day, the decision is taken out of his hands as a dealer calls him up notifying the availability of a gorilla. His decision is made.
The narrator then familiarizes the reader to the gorillas : of their nature and vulnerability. He also expresses his anxiety about the dealer having mistaken a chimpanzee for a gorilla, remarking that ” In my experience, the average animal dealer can, with difficulty, distinguish between a bird, a reptile and a mammal, but this is about the extent of his zoological knowledge “. He inquires about the price and the dealer pins it to £12000. The narrator agrees and is later interrogated by his wife, Jackie. Durrel then calls up his friend Hope (one just hopes Hope isn’t allegorical) and asks her to furnish him a list of roughly fifty richest people in the island, leaving her in great astonishment. She feels he’s being too optimistic about it. Simply put, Hope isn’t very hopeful.
Half an hour later, Hope gives him a list of roughly fifty people. He begins making calls and manages to collect a mere £200 by lunchtime. A certain Major Domo gives a very positive response to his call and agrees to donate £1000, much to the bewilderment of the narrator.
Finally he goes to the London Airport and is pleasantly surprised to look at the fine specimen of gorilla : N’pongo
“He stood about eighteen inches high and was quite the most handsome and healthy looking baby gorilla I had ever seen. He strolled stockily across the room towards me and then held up his arms to be lifted up. I was amazed at how heavy he was for his size, and I soon realized that this was all bone and muscle ;there was not a spare ounce of fat on him. His light- chocolate-coloured fur was thick and soft, and the skin of his hands, feet and face was soft and glossy as patent leather. His eyes were small and deep-set, twinkling like chips of coal.”
The narrator’s guestroom becomes N’pongo’s abode and his courteous manners soon win over the narrator’s wife and mother.
Despite his relatively good manners as compared to other gorillas, N’pongo doesn’t quite leave the guest room in the same state he had found it in. Some of the signs of his presence he leaves behind before being moved to the zoo include a near-perfect scarlet map of Japan drawn on the walls after a meal of tinned raspberries, a dirty floor and a bent door handle testifying of his strength. Within twelve months, N’pongo almost doubles up in size and the narrator soon realizes that he must be provided a suitable mate. He calls up the dealer and inquires whether he’ll be able to procure a female gorilla for N’pongo. Consequently, Nandy is brought to the zoo , with the payment carried out in installment basis.
Nandy, the female gorilla has had a very unfortunate past. The description of the sufferings faced by this gorilla and her subsequent behavior is an example of the trauma which animals suffer from irresponsible and unwarranted human involvement in the lives of wild animals. The narrator and his wife find it very difficult to win Nandy’s confidence. They decide to familiarize the two animals and finally make Nandy enter N’pongo’s cage. Excited and anxious, they make sure to keep buckets of water readily at hand in case of any emergency. After some initial tussle, the two gorillas get along quite well and very soon become fast friends.
One day , N’pongo falls terribly ill at a time when the narrator had arranged spend three weeks in the south of France, accompanied by a BBC producer to make a film about life in Caragruel. Four days prior to his departure, N’pongo starts showing signs of illness. He refuses any food or milk and begins suffering from acute diarrhoea. Soon, he starts losing weight at an alarming rate to such a degree that the narrator almost loses hope.
He and Jackie decide to buy some exotic fruits and vegetables from the market in St Helier. Durrel chances upon a plump watermelon and knowing that N’pongo had never tried it earlier, decides to give it a try. Back in zoo, N’pongo rejects the fruits one after another before finally getting hold of the watermelon. With his curiosity aroused, he tries the fruit and this begins his slow journey to recovery. After some days, N’pongo takes his Complan, finally becomes able to stand on his feet and gets in better shape when the narrator departs. He constantly calls home to track the health of the gorilla and is happy to see N’pongo happy and healthy like he’d always been.
The account ends on a reflective note by the narrator on the responsibilities which accompany such a serious task as conserving wildlife:
“I reflected, as I watched him rolling on his back and clapping his hands in an effort to attract my attention, that, though it was delightful to have creatures like this – and of vital importance that they should be kept and bred in captivity – it was a two-edged sword, for the anxiety you suffered when they became ill made you wonder why you started the whole thing in the first place “.
Needless to say, such conservators of wildlife require much support and assistance from people who are aware and sensitive to the need for wildlife conservation without which a large number of animals may disappear forever from the face of the earth.
A Gorilla in a Guestroom : Analysis
Gerald Durrel is one of the few naturalists to have a style of writing that is precise yet entertaining. Peppered with wit and information, he can inform and educate his audience with an ease and on which count he has but few equals among naturalists.
The letter presented at the beginning of the story functions like the literary technique of foreshadowing. It sets the mood of the account and hints at what is to be expected.
The priorities of this naturalist are sensed in the first few paragraphs when he says that his zoo “must cease to be a mere show-place of animals and start to contribute something towards the conservation of wildlife “. For all its amusement and fun, one mustn’t forget that this account is a serious work of ecocriticism. Lodged within the lines of humor, this amusing account is also a serious critique of society, the government and organizations insofar as their commitment towards animal conservation is concerned. The utter apathy of a large segment of the society (save for the likes of Major Domo) is felt in the bewilderment of Hope and Jacquie at the narrator’s optimism in collecting the required funds for N’opongo. This is what Hope has to say of the people’s awareness about the need for animal conservation :
“I realize it and you realize it, but I’m afraid the average person either doesn’t or couldn’t care less .”
This line speaks volumes about the level of commitment of society towards nature.
A critique of governments is made in the first few paragraphs of the account:
Newly emergent governments are generally far too busy proving themselves to the world for the first few years to worry much about the fate of the wildlife of their country, and history has proved , time and again, how rapidly a species can be exterminated, even a numerous one.”
A critique of organizations which are supposed to be taking wildlife conservation seriously is seen in the middle of the account where the narrator says that he has seen many zoos “including some that had ample resources for providing (the animals) a mate” do not do it. This is a subtle way of hinting at the mismanagement (and possibly corruption) of funds in the zoos themselves.
Thus, by mounting some subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on societies, institutions and governments, Durrrel’s account adds to the much needed and ever increasing body of ecocritical literature and nature writing.
Not only does Durell’s style provide interesting information to a general readership, it also presents inside information to the readers who are already interested in the subject. Therefore even if the need to provide mates for the captive animals may be known, the description of sorting out the power equations between the two animals is both interesting and informative. So is the info of how sick apes lose their weight with great rapidity and how an ape can be tricked into drinking something by rubbing unpleasant Dispirin against its gums. Geez. Humans.
Had it not been for Durrel’s sense of humor, the account just might as well have turned into a drab documentation by just another naturalist. Some instances of his humor reside in unassuming paragraphs of serious nature which pop up when least expected and take the readers by surprise. While describing the adjustment of power relations between N’pongo and Nancy, he writes thus:
They were working out their own protocol: should Nandy be allowed to swing on the rope when N’Pongo was sitting on the cross-beam? Should N’Pongo be allowed to pinch Nandy’s carrots even when they were smaller than his own? It had the childishness of a general election but was three times as interesting“.
The empathic treatment given to animals in Durrel’s writing is what endears it to the readers. N’pongo isn’t seen as a specimen but rather as an individual. The human-like manner in which the action of N’pongo is described and the words used in doing so is an example of this point. The manner in which little N’pongo holds up his arms waiting to be lifted is a straight out aawww . Notice the description of his action in the following paragraph:
“He…then lifted a fat and gentle forefinger and investigated my beard. I tickled his ribs and he wriggled about in my arms, giggling hoarsely, his eyes shining with amusement. “
For all his humor and empathy, certain paragraphs of this account contain racist undertones while describing the gorillas which besmirch many naturalist accounts. These instance move from slight condescension to downright derogatory. Some instances include:
And before long he (the gorilla) was lolling back on the sofa while they liked him with delicacies, and the staff came upstairs one by one to pay him homage as if he were some black potentate.
So he (the gorilla) walked slowly round like a small black professor in a museum.
While describing Nandy’s scar, the narrator says that it reminded him of “the curious initiative and unnecessary partings that so many Africans carve in their hair with the aid of a razor”.
This constant attempt at drawing parallels between gorillas and people of African origin on Durrel’s part, whether born of malevolence or otherwise is nevertheless deeply discriminatory.
Gerarld, writing predominantly for a white audience and being a product of an age still suffering the hangover of late colonialism seems not to have escaped the colonial influence after all. The ‘naturalist’ account which aim to draw even the faintest parallel between a particular race and any other primate must be viewed with great suspicion for it can be traced back to the accounts of Darwin and the social consequences arising thereof.
In all, the sincerity with which Durell has presented the case for wildlife conservation and the humor with which he laces it makes A Gorilla in a Guestroom a delightful dose of infotainment. However, the text, by the virtue of being a product of a certain time and age must be received with the necessary critical reading it requires.