Edward Docx’s previous novel, Self Help, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, and in my attempt to guess this year’s longlist, I thought this was as good a place as any to start. As it turns out, I was horribly wrong on the award count, but on the plus side, got to read a good novel.
Dr Forle leads a small scientific team in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, studying a species of ants. One night, however, the steady march of development comes to the research station, and an event occurs that changes the dynamic of the group. As friendships slowly unravel, and as the atmosphere becomes more and more tense, it is clear something must give.
The eponymous Devil’s Gardens are real things – parts of the Amazonian rainforest where all bar a certain species of plant are poisoned by a species of ant (this one, for those who are interested), so they can shape their environment to their needs. At the same time, contrary to popular opinion about evolution theory, these ants will die for their families, and indeed, other colonies of the same species. Rather than conforming to the selfish gene theory – of which, no doubt, humanity is the best example – they are
I’ve heard several people compare this to Heart of Darkness – though I’m not sure there are many similarities other than the fact there’s a white man stuck in an unfamiliar jungle. Perhaps the most important point is that both portray the jungle as a place where humanity loses all control, where Western civilisation has no control over anything. Early on, we are reminded that, even though Forle has been here for a long time, he still cannot tell different parts of the jungle apart, and so is glad for his local guides. There’s a brutally excellent scene in this novel where Forle is kidnapped, and taken into the depths of the jungle. When he manages to escape, he is half blinded, half starved, and pretty much completely mad, and the fact that he is surrounded by indistinguishable jungle means that he has no hope of escape. There’s a real energy to the scene, and it’s quite harrowing reading about a man who has absolutely no control over his own life, running desperately through the jungle, about to die.
Docx then somewhat inverts Conrad’s theories, and instead has the industrialised South Americans as the real ‘villains’ of the piece, not the native tribes that inhabit the jungle. It is Western civilisation, with all its liberal democratic ideals, that have created these drug barons, and oil cartels, and they are the ones using progress as an excuse for their rather wicked ways. Most – not all – of the indigenous people that we meet are polite, kind, and happy to help out the team in any way they can. It is the ones that have been talking to the barons that . Here, it is clear that the inherent capitalist greed that lies within us has corrupted those who have come into contact with it. Indeed, the only time we glimpse any kind of town, it is a small port town, inhabited by prostitutes and drug lords, and other people who would hardly be considered model citizens by the mainstream.
And so this brings us back to the ants. At first, I assumed that the ants were a metaphor for climate change – the idea that humanity will take and shape the environment around us, even if it is actually detrimental to the overall well-being of the planet. But in hindsight, I think the message is smaller than that. Humans will taken anything that we see – whether that be jungle, or other people – and use them for our own purpose. Rather than working as a team, as the ants do, and helping out the species in any way we can, greed and self-preservation will win out, and we will even resort to using other humans for our own purposes, if we think it will help. It’s a bleak message, but the cynic in me can’t help but feel that it’s fairly accurate.
The only problem I have is that the novel is very short. And I don’t necessarily mean that I enjoyed it so much, I wanted it to keep going. I just feel that with a bit more time, Docx could have pushed some of the ideas even more, and perhaps made the morality of tale even more vague. As it stands, though, the claustrophobic nature of the Amazonian jungle, brought to life so well by Docx, makes The Devil’s Garden an affecting novel, making us think about our relationship with nature, but more importantly, with each other.