Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

Les Racines du Ciel. 1956 English title: The Roots of Heaven.

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary won his first Prix Goncourt with Les Racines du ciel. It was published in 1956 and it’s the story of Morel who is in Africa to save elephants. Great challenge. This novel is an ode to wilderness and a plea to humanity to preserve natural resources. Gary advocates that preserving natural beauty is a way for humanity to prove its superiority to its basic instincts. Elephants are at stake, but there’s more to the story than preserving elephants and stopping illegal hunting. Morel is an idealist, a type of character Gary liked to explore. I picked a quote that sums up Morel’s fight and vision of nature:

Est-ce que nous ne sommes plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps ? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? Translation more than reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I had a lot of trouble translating this; the French sentence with all the commas isn’t easy to put together in English. Many thanks to Erik for his help. That quote asks the ultimate question: are we still able to admire and respect beauty for free.  Where is our civilisation going if we can’t value beauty for itself not for what it brings us?

Les Racines du Ciel was written nearly sixty years ago and I can’t help wondering what Morel would do about global warming. The preservation of elephants is the cause Morel fights for. Gary takes advantages of his character’s presence in Africa, in the soon-to-be former French colonies to discuss decolonisation and more importantly, its aftermath. He always has a sharp analysis of the world he lives in. These regions will be free from the French in the early 1960s and Gary already sees the dictatorships coming. I admire Gary for his capacity to decode the world around him. He’s sharp about politics but he also feels the trends in society in France or abroad. White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid…a lot of his books have that side analysis seep through the pages.

In my opinion, The Roots of Heaven is an excellent book but perhaps not the one I’d choose for a first Gary. It’s been made into a film which I haven’t seen.

PS: The celebration of Gary’s centenary continues in France and you’ll find useful links here, in Delphine’s post. I really want that version of Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joan Sfar. It weighs two kilos so it’s not very handy but I’m really curious about it.


  1. April 16, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Gunnar Sewell and commented:
    The Prix Goncourt is a prize in French literature. Last year’s winner was Pierre Lemaitre.


    • April 17, 2014 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for the reblog.
      Did you know Gary got the Goncourt twice, which is not possible according to the prize regulations.


  2. April 17, 2014 at 12:37 am

    Hi. I hope all is well with you. I’ve been following this project for a long time, I would like to thank you for it. My French sucks, but Gary is my God and The Roots of Heaven is my favorite book. I’ve been a long-time fan and don’t know any others quite like him…Here is

    “We need all the dogs, all the cats, and all the birds, and all the elephants we can find…”
    He spat on the ground, suddenly and violently. Then he said, with his head bent as though he dared not look at the stars: “We need all the friendship we can find around us.”


    My best


    • April 17, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks for the message. To be honest, this series of posts didn’t get a lot of hits compared to my other billets. I wondered if anyone read them except for a few supporting readers, like David, Guy or Vishy.

      Gary’s one of a kind,isn’t he? Brotherhood is a a major theme for him, one he inherited from his time in the army.

      I don’t know why he doesn’t get republished in English. Perhaps there are problems with the publishing rights. I wish I could ask his son about it. (He’s the one in charge of Gary’s heritage)


  3. April 17, 2014 at 1:06 am

    You summarize LES RACINES DU CIEL very well. Thanks. I found it more of a treatise on multiple subjects than a story, and the story itself was difficult to follow. The time frames kept on shifting and often the dialogue within dialogue made it hard to keep track of who was talking. But then, I’m comparing it to LA VIE DEVANT SOI. I’m getting the sense Gary and Ajar were different authors.


    • April 17, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      The Roots of Heaven changes of POV, I understand it can be unsettling sometimes.
      Emile Ajar was created to allow Gary to be someone else. The Roots of Heaven was written almost 20 years before, his style had changed. If you read novels like The Ski Bum, you can feel a connection between Gary’s style and Ajar’s. Ajar was a way to open a door to a “New” career.


  4. April 17, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Beautiful quote, Emma. I love the premise behind ‘Les Racines du Ciel’. I would love to read this book if it is available in English translation. That new French edition of ‘Promise at Dawn’ looks very interesting.


    • April 17, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks Vishy. Yes, the Roots of Heaven is available in English.


  5. April 17, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Merci pour le lien. Faut que je lise Les racines du ciel (j’ai commencé et puis…). TU devrais demander à Futuropolis un exemplaire de La promesse (c’est ce que j’ai fait)


    • April 17, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      Merci de recenser les événements. J’écouterai Cosmopolitaine, j’aime bien cette émission en plus.
      Comment est La Promesse illustrée?


  6. April 18, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Typical. The longest of his books is the one that sounds as if I’d love it.
    Guess what – I ordered it anyway. 🙂


    • April 18, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      I think you’ll like it, Caroline and I’m looking forward to reading your review.


  1. April 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm

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