Sample Commentary – Toads and Dancing Monkeys


Durrell’s autobiographical account of his travels in West Africa during the early 1950s is humorous His intention is to transport the reader from her English sitting room through the brilliantly colourful jungle which teems with life and is full of exotic sights and sounds. Everything here is alive, from the ancient lorry to the sounds of the birds. Everything has a mind of its own, from the sentinel trees and ferns to the willful components of the truck. By bringing the scene so vividly to life, Durrell’s writing serves as a metaphor for the exuberance of life in the jungle. We can see that he considers the jungle to be a single living entity in his image of the forest, a thick pelt of green undulating into the distance. This then is his purpose, to make the scene come bursting alive, and the language which he uses achieves this aim wonderfully well.

In the first paragraph we are cleverly introduced to the pitiful clapped out jalopy of a truck. The negatively expressed and understated ‘not in what one would call the first flush of youth’ leads us to expect a means of transport perhaps verging on cantankerous and unreliable middle age. However, the antique vehicle which arrives is personified as a geriatric human struggling for breath, and the alliterative ‘wheels wheezing’ and onomatopoeic ‘gasping’ bring to vivid life its asthmatic condition, especially when it cannot cope even with the gentlest of slopes. Its component parts are also alive and possess minds of their own and thus Durrell  has to take control of them like a strict schoolmaster watching over unruly pupils with his stern eye. One pupil, the handbrake, is surly, while the other, the clutch, is playful. Here we find the strange simile ‘seized every chance to leap out of its socket with a noise like a strangling leopard’. The noise of the clutch is surely a matter for the imagination of the reader, but one function of this simile is to remind the reader that she is in the distant jungle and that the decrepit lorry still has something of the wild animal in it and remains part of the jungle around.

Durrell obviously has a high opinion of the skills of West African lorry drivers, as he says that not even they can drive in impossible positions. Here, the adverb ‘even’ serves to compare West African lorry driver favourably with their counterparts elsewhere. Durrell introduces more humour when he describes the truck as ‘noble’, a royal quality it obviously acquires from its sedate and stately speed of 20 mph. This is made more humorous with the idiomatic ‘threw caution to the winds’ and careered along in a madcap fashion at twenty-five. This is a piece of hyperbole as 25 mph is anything but fast, but of course to the clapped out wagon it is very quick indeed.

Having brought the lorry to life, Durrell moves on in paragraph two to bring the jungle around him to life and endow the flora with surprising purpose. Here we have the trees standing in solid ranks as soldiers guarding something, but what? Later the metaphor is repeated as the ferns become guardians of a new landscape. Could these provide a clue as to Durrell’s purpose in Africa?

In the same paragraph we are introduced to the boys who sing a simple song in a simple dialect. All that interests them is going to ma home to ma mammy. They do not notice and have no interest in the wondrous sights around them. The driver too is deferential to Durrell, worried that he will object to the song. Durrell is obviously the boss, he knows everything about the forest, and compared to his rich and flamboyant language, the natives appear to be little more than simpletons who are merely there to help him on his dark purpose. This paragraph also contains beautiful, evocative descriptions of the love of Durrell’s life, the animals that inhabit the forest. The alliteration of the fricative f in flocks of hornbills flapped brings these exotic birds vividly to life. The onomatopoeia of honking conjures their call, and the simile like the ghosts of ancient taxis evokes a mystical, spiritual rather than physical presence and serves to remind the reader of the other worldliness of this domain. Then we meet the agama lizards who are alliteratively draped decoratively, an image of curtains in keeping with the nature of the forest and one which gains credence when their colour is described as sunset, a myriad of changes from orange through red to deepest violet. Once again the lizards are full of life as they nod their heads furiously. Furiously at what, one wonders – is it simply the speed of movement, or is it their anger and knowledge of Durrell’s purpose? The road too has life, looping its way in languid curves. The lengthy l sounds accentuating the long and lazy path it takes. All of this alliteration and onomatopoeia serve to bring the sounds of the forest to the readers’ ears.

In the third paragraph, we meet a new landscape, that of the uplands. This is much less luxuriant than the lowland forest, but nevertheless is described in vibrant terms. There are tree ferns which stand around plotting and planning with fronds like delicate green fountains, a simile which easily captures how they look and suggests the renewing life giving qualities of fountains. The hills become bare; they shrug themselves free of a cloak, because, of course, they too are alive. We find golden grass rippling, an echo of the undulating forest below. To close this section we return to the lorry, which has, against all the odds, made it to the summit exhibiting all the signs of illness and age previously mentioned. Though by now it truly seems to be on its last legs spouting steam like a dying whale. It is with a sense of relief and release that the passage ends with the closure of switched off the engine.

Whilst the use of language clearly plays the major role in how Durrell achieves his aim, there are some areas of structure which require comment. He uses colons, firstly to explain in detail why this particular lorry was worse than any he had met before. Secondly to list the operations he was required to supervise whilst in the lorry. The effect is to lead the reader to expect that in each case more information will be provided. Durrell also uses present participles rather than finite tenses to de-emphasise actions and thus focus more on the image presented. Thus we find that the agama lizards lay, blushing into sunset colouring: the focus clearly being on the picture of them blushing. Similarly we see massive tree-ferns standing in conspiratorial groups, and the effect helps us visualise them as humans.

Durrell easily conveys his enthusiasm for the forest and its inhabitants through his flamboyant use of language. The experience for the reader is to be transported with him onto the lorry and into the forests of West Africa; to an exotic location where everything is alive and conscious

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