Like many of the books I’ve written about on this site, I discovered A Cargo of Parrots serendipitously–that is, in the course of looking for something else. In this case, it was through reading about the career and works of Wallace Stegner, who, after some years of underappreciation, if not neglect, has come to be recognized as one of the major American novelists of the 20th Century.
When I learned that Stegner’s first novel, Remembering Laughter, was selected as the winner of a short novel contest run by Little, Brown in 1937 and was one of the five titles selected for publication out of the 1,340 works submitted, I immediately began wondering about the other four. Thanks to a Saturday Review item written by Howard Mumford Jones, “Hope for the Novelette”, it didn’t take long to identify them as:
- A Cargo of Parrots, by R. Hernekin Baptist
- Loving Memory, by Joe Hill
- This Man, Joe Murray, by William Corcoran
- Night at Hogwallow, Theodore Strauss
Jones’ review agreed with Little, Brown’s assessment that Remembering Laughter was clearly the superior work of the five, but I was most intrigued by his comment that A Cargo of Parrots was “an almost perfect realization of the form” (that is, the novelette or short novel). That was enough to spur me to locate and buy a used copy.
But the cover illustration, of a Moorish, faintly pirate-ish (the man does have a parrot on his shoulder) with a sailing ship was enough to lead me to shelve it far away, to be read at some long distant time. Despite the fact that I’ve featured a fair number of nautical books over the years, I actually don’t care much for the subject and it’s only really good writing that can get me over that prejudice. So it sat there for a couple of years, until I picked it, almost at random, to read on a flight back to the U.S. this week.
Well, as I said, it takes really good writing to keep me reading a nautical book, and there is some exceptionally good writing in A Cargo of Parrots. And by that I mean not just that the prose is fine–balanced, fluid, subtle–but that the author’s perspective is quite remarkably open and sensitive. I started liking it within the first ten pages, and by the time I finished it a couple of hours later, I loved it.
It’s the story of a man named Ramazani, a native of one of the islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania. Kidnapped onto an Arab dhow as a child, he has passed through a series of masters until, somewhere in middle age, he is bound to an ailing German naturalist who survives by trapping exotic birds for zoos in northern Europe. When his bwana dies in a town on the Congo coast, Ramazani is left with the task to escort the parrots they have collected back to England and Germany.
This lands Ramazani and his birds on a hard-luck American steamer with a bitter, racist first mate, and from the moment the two men meet, it is clear that the story will have a violent end. Not that Ramazani is a violent man. If anything, as the author conveys within the first few pages of the book, he is quiet and perceptive, even if he interprets the actions and manners of Western men through a different lens. Indeed, it’s the civility of his manners that provokes the mate:
Had he been able to express his feelings he might have said to himself that no nigger should ever be given the advantage of such dignified clothing: the long and snowy-white coatlike garment coming to the feet; a spotless white cotton fex, delicately embroidered. The ancient garb of kanzu and kofia, which sets off so admirably the natural dignity of the East African Arab, roused in Mr. Jacob almost rage. Niggers should wear the cast-off garments of the white man, shouldn’t they?
When, a day or two later, the first confrontation takes place, it is not a clash of cultures but something primeval: they find themselves “staring at each other like two wild animals, hereditary enemies who have met by chance on a highway, man-made, between two sides of a forest.”
This last quote captures one of the remarkable aspects of A Cargo of Parrots, which is the sophistication of the author’s perceptions, in being able to accept and communicate the validity not only of what we would now call a Third World perspective, but also of an ecological sensibility. Ramazani holds deep respect for the German naturalist, in part because he reacts to African wildlife in a way that no other white men, to his knowledge, do:
It revolted him to see the enforced public intimacies of the mating season; the wonderful display–in Nature’s setting–of individual song and dance and gesture; of coquetry, of joy, rage, jealousy, revenge and even murder, taking place in the dark spaces and glades of the forest, in the solitary trees and the open grass of the African uplands, in the faces of ancient lichenous rocks and the newer, raw escarpment hanging over a two-thousand-mile valley which holds its bed, like pools left in the rocks after rain, lakes as big as England; or on the lily-patterned surface of forest lakes remote and small whose source springs hot from volcanic fires…. It wrung his heart to see some wretched substitute for the age-old routine of the nest–that miraculous inherited uniqueness and precision of form and material and site–the plaintive cries, the thwarted efforts of the parent birds to hide their eggs, to feed their young without the arduous and joyous duties of the hunt and without the food proper to the species; to see the swift decline and death, after a million of years, of instinct–like the blowing out of a sacred lamp, no less that the sudden stoppage of an elaborate system more exact than any man-made machine; to see the dullness of eye and feather that follows such outrage to body and spirit….
The word “ecosystem” hadn’t been coined when this was written, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that this passage might have been written by an environmental activist today.
So who was R. Hernekin Baptist, and how did he or she develop such an open and empathetic view of Africans and their environment? Well, first of all, this was the pseudonym chosen by Ethelreda Lewis, an English woman who came to South Africa at the age of nineteen and worked for a variety of magazines and newspapers before publishing in 1924 The Harp, the first of three novels with an African setting, under her own name. She also achieved international fame as the credited “as told to” author of three books of memoirs by the legendary hunter and ivory trader, Trader Horn. An abridgement of the three books is still in print today as Trader Horn: A Young Man’s Astounding Adventures in 19th Century Equatorial Africa. For various reasons, she decided, starting with her 1931 novel, Four Handsome Negresses: The record of a voyage, to begin publishing under the odd name of R. Hernekin Baptist, and there was a second book–Wild Deer (1934)–based on a murder at a Swiss mission in what is now Lesotho. (The story was retold a few years ago in Tim Couzens’ Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission. Her final book, Wild Deer, was published a year after A Cargo of Parrots. She died in 1946.
While I can’t fully support Jones’ assessment of A Cargo of Parrots as “almost perfect” (there is a disproportional amount of material whose only purpose is to provide Jacobs, the first mate, with a back story), it is a moving and powerful story. As the ship steams further north, and Ramazani and the parrots encounter the cold and storms of the North Atlantic, their sufferings becomes almost unbearable for the reader. This was not at all the story I expected from the book’s cover, and it has been to my considerable pleasure and appreciation to have looked past that.