One of the most impressive things in both books was the author’s ability to convey a sense of place. His evocation of the Paddington area of London in The Calligrapher was particularly memorable, but there are certainly other examples (his description of St. Petersburg gets high praise from those who know that city). Both novels also excelled in the way that Docx carefully developed his characters, put them through their paces and supplied a dramatic twist at the end — the plots stretch credibility but I was happy to grant him licence and was more than rewarded by the results.
The pre-publicaton description of The Devil’s Garden promised something very different. The central character, Dr J. Forle, is a scientist studying ant colonies, his research project based at the last inhabited station on the Amazon River. I’d say that is literally as far away from cosmopolitan London and New York as you can get — as Docx makes clear in a short preface from Forle:
I came here as a scientist to conduct experiments on other living things. I believed that the most fundamental questions of our existence could be answered in the lab. I believed in rigorous method and the unemotional reporting of results. But I have come to see life itself is the real experiment and that the answers to these questions are to be found only in what we do — as individuals, as a species. What results there are might better be called experience, and experience soon teaches us that they are not the results we would want. I will leave here under another name because of what I have done. All the same, I will leave here as a human being.
The entomology metaphor (actually it is a sub-set, myremecology, the study of ants) that flows from that introduction will continue as a framing device throughout the book, so let’s deal with it first. The altruistic, colony behavior of ants represented a threat to the very core of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the idea of survival of the fittest:
This extreme cooperative behavior runs counter to everything we have come to accept about natural selection and the prevalent idea that the genes that get passed on most often over time are the ones whose consequences serve their own interests. The societies of ants must therefore be reckoned with at the centre of all evolutionary questions. How can there be so many altruistic individuals and yet so many successful species?
And they are very successful. More than any other creature, the ants saturate and dominate the terrestrial environment. There are something like thirteen thousand species with roughly that number again yet to be discovered. Their total population is probably underestimated at ten thousand trillion individuals.
We call them ‘eusocial’ insects, meaning ‘truly social’. Some ants farm, some use tools, some fight terrible wars, others enslave and still others are inquilines — disguised interlopers who rely on their hosts for food and shelter.
The distinguishing characteristic of the species that Forle and his colleagues are studying is their ability to destory all vegetation, except for that that specifically serves their needs, in selected areas of the jungle, creating what the local Indians call the Devil’s garden.
On the other side of the metaphor, we have homo sapiens, represented by varied “species” as well. The staff of the research station represent one: Forle and two Caucasian assistants, supported by four indigenous people “who were all on the payroll of the state”. They represent the peaceful, scientific subset of homo sapiens.
There are of course others, the extremes of which are represented by two visitors who arrive at the station early in the book, Colonel Cordero and the Judge, ostensibly to register everyone living in the area, perhaps to vote, perhaps for other reasons. The Judge’s explanation is enigmatic:
‘Everyone. We are registering everyone.’ He was annoyed to have been distracted from looking at Sole’s legs. ‘Outlaws, smugglers, gun-runners, rat-eaters, monkey-fiddlers. If it shows up alive…we register it.’
‘Surely they need some kind of proof of identity?’ I [Forle] was not so naive as to believe this, but because of my continued irritation with Cordero, I was determined to be affable with the Judge. ‘Otherwise anyone could turn up and there would be no record for next time and the whole electoral register would become –’
‘A farce.’ The Judge interrupted me. ‘A protracted farce.’
And the Colonel?
Cordero spoke only to ask questions. I could not gauge his intelligence, nor the nature of his relationship with the Judge, but I was forming an opinion that he was the sort of a man who took a steady satisfaction in rooting down for the worst of things — perhaps to prove to himself that nobody else was free from the fears and weaknesses he harboured in his own mind; perhaps because he found that he could not be sure of anything but the lowest motives.
If the Colonel and Judge represent two aligned species of homo sapiens on this side of the metaphor, the Judge’s list indicates some other non-native people who are also at play in this environment: drug dealers, loggers, oilmen — various types of invaders who have various levels of support from the state in exploiting the resources of the area, all in conflict with the scientific project.
And then, of course, there are the tribes indigenous to the area. Some merely move further into the jungle when the inevitable conflicts between different exploiters arise. Others oppose all invaders. And still others choose a side, conflict-by-conflict, motivated by what looks best at the moment rather than any choice measured against long-term benefits.
In this world of conflicting human “colonies”, the members of the research station are at the very bottom of the totem pole, since they don’t even have the option of melting further into the jungle. It is this aspect that Docx chooses to focus on as the novel moves forward — the metaphor remains, but the non-ant side of the story moves into thriller-like territory.
Despite the author’s considerable talents, none of this worked for me. The metaphor initially held appeal, but Docx doesn’t take it anywhere — the novel illustrates it, rather than develops it, which seems to me to be an abuse of the reason for metaphor (they are supposed to make things clearer, not require illustration). The characters, both the invaders (including Forle) and the indigenous people, are two-dimensional cutouts, moved around to serve the active parts of the plot rather than driving it or becoming fuller as a result. And, while it is possible that Docx’s description of the jungle may be every bit as good as the urban sense of place that I loved in his two previous novels, this time it simply didn’t land with me — although that conclusion may say more about my interests than it does about the author’s ability.
While The Devil’s Garden was a disappointment for me, I won’t be abandoning Edward Docx — and those who are attracted by that entomology metaphor may well find more in this novel than I did. Unlike many contemporary authors who tend to write different versions of the same book as their career progresses, Docx, with three books now to his credit, has already shown an interest in exploring dramatically different story threads in each of his novels. Any author willing to take those kind of risks is bound to fall short of the mark — for some readers, at least — on occasion; the innovative effort itself deserves to be recognized.