A new heart of darkness?

The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx

Set primarily in the last inhabited river station up a tributary of the mighty Amazon, The Devil’s Garden conjures up strong visions and parallels.

You immediately think of other ‘jungle’ novels – Heart of Darkness being the obvious one of course, and indeed they do share some heavy themes. This novel is billed as a literary thriller, which I suppose it is, but very much in slow-burn Graham Greene mould – I’m thinking The Quiet American meets A Burnt Out Case here … but let me tell you a little about the book.

Dr Forle and his assistant Kim, aided by German guide Lothar, work in the jungle carrying on the work of Forle’s partner studying a particular species of ant; ones that create Devil’s Gardens – poisoning all the plants around their nest except their favoured home making strange glades in the forest – like man of course!

One day, the peaceful existence of the station residents is disturbed by the arrival of the Judge and a Colonel and soon a band of soldiers. Officially there to register the jungle tribes to vote, their presence upsets everything, and after Forle witnesses a boy being tortured one night, it is clear that life can’t go on as normal, although Forle tries to assert his authority. You just know that it’s going to go wrong …

For the non-indigenous folk, (except perhaps Lothar who seems to know his way around in the jungle), life revolves around the river.  The settlement itself only goes skin deep.  Everything arrives and departs via the river and the path between the communal building, the comedor, and the jetty is the only highway.

Forle is rather naïve, like Conrad’s view of those Europeans that haven’t gone native, he seems to believe that by letting the Colonel and Judge know that he knows what’s going on, (although of course he only knows the tip of the iceberg), that perpetrators will be dealt with and life can go on.  And go on it does, but only sort of. He doesn’t realise the ulterior motives behind the soldier’s actions and those of the judge, and the danger that they are all in and this leads up to an all-action thrilling climax. Earlier on in the novel though, the judge is holding forth at dinner, replying to Kim who hopes that his motives in registering the Indians is for their own good…

The Judge’s match flared as he spoke. ‘Miss Van der Kisten, we hear a lot of this talk in our country. And so we ask ourselves, why do you people come to the jungle?’ He raised his jaw and exhaled towards the sky. His voice had an incantatory quality so that his words seemed to range out into the darkness of the night beyond and to echo in on the silence. ‘Let me tell you. Always, always, it is for one of two reasons: either to find a green hell and to see some kind of a freak show; or to find a green heaven and so rediscover some ancient truth that you pretend to yourself humanity has lost but in reality has everything to do with your own feelings of emptiness and worthlessness and nothing whatsoever to do with the Indians of their lives. And what happens the moment your own way of life is threatened? You retreat – you retreat the better to commune with your narcissistic little sense of entitlement, which simply will not go away no matter however much you recycle your packaging.’
‘I come for the ants,’ I said, softly.

Told by Forle who, being a scientist, is a trained observer, life in the station contrasts with extracts from his journals about the ants.  The ebb and flow of life on, and in, the river also contrasts vividly with the menace within the jungle. This certainly sets the scene, together with a growing suspicion that something bad will happen – there are hints of spies and double-crossing.  It really takes its time to get there though.  This is where it felt very Graham Greene-ish to me, and I rather enjoyed this aspect.

What I also liked is that life at the station hasn’t changed much from other earlier jungle novels.  Yes, they have a computer in a laboratory, but that all had to be shipped in boatload by boatload, and they only have the oil to charge the batteries for a few hours use each night.  Everything else is done the traditional way, and initially, Forle’s biggest worry is that the Judge will drink them dry before new supplies arrive.

I didn’t mind the slow-burn at all, I revelled in the foetid darkness at the heart (!) of this novel. I also hoped that Forle would find himself as, at the start of the novel, like a Graham Greene lead character, he was in danger of burning out too soon.  Docx can really write, and I will look forward to reading his previous Booker long-listed novel Self Help.  The two stars of The Devil’s Garden are really the river and the jungle, and they drive the book at their own pace making fascinating reading companions. (8.5/10)

For another view see Kim’s thoughts at Reading Matters.
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My ARC was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx, pub Apr 2011, Picador, 304 pages. (Now in p.bk)
Self Help by Edward Docx
Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad
A Burnt Out Case & The Quiet American by Graham Greene

4 thoughts on “A new heart of darkness?

  1. Alex says:

    OK, so I have a dilemma here, I love Greene, but really can’t handle Conrad. ‘A Burnt Out Case’ is one of my favourite Greene’s. Is it really like that?

    • gaskella says:

      To be honest, it’s so long since I read the Greene (must remedy), but I remember some similar themes, and of course it’s set in the remote Congo, but Forle is less complicated than Querry and there’s no Mrs Rycker equivalent. Actually, upon reflection I feel that Forle is more like a combination of Fowler and Pyle from The Quiet American!

      Maybe the themes are more Conrad-ish, but the style is more Greene. Does that help?

  2. Susanna P says:

    Funny – when I first saw the title of the post, I thought you’d be discussing State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which is supposedly a retelling of Heart of Darkness (having not yet read Conrad’s work, I can’t speak for myself). Anyway, this looks like an interesting read. Thanks for the review!

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