Now that you've shot the continent's last white rhino can we do something I think is romantic?
Jonathan Latimer's African adventure novel Dark Memory needs a more grandiose title, because it's pure Hemingway, and you know how lyrical his titles were. Latimer's novel is about nature, and courage, and women. It reads as if he said to himself after finishing Green Hills of Africa, “I wonder if I could do something like what Papa did here?” Well, he could. Dark Memory is a totally absorbing safari tale, a slice of time long gone. Latimer is in what we call the “trusted” category. He's set-and-forget. He's a concierge who's never failed a customer. If he wants to take us on an African safari, all we can say is, “Where do we get our malaria shots?”
Today people who hunt big game are excoriated on social media, and we understand why. The animals they shoot are simply too rare and valuable to be killed for ego. The hunters of yesteryear also killed for ego, but did so under a more limited ecological understanding and more lax political circumstances. Some practices of the past shouldn't survive, and killing lions for their skins shouldn't survive any more than should gladiatorial combat with swords. Big game hunters of today know that these African animals will be slaughtered unto extinction, but they simply don't care. Some might not want to shoot the last one, or hundredth one, or thousandth, but they're offset by sociopaths who'd pay a fortune to usher a species to oblivion. It's basic economics. The rarer the animal the more someone will pay to kill it.
If you were to search Dark Memory for good explanations why people kill African wildlife you'd be disappointed. Killing to prove one's own courage, killing a silverback gorilla carrying an infant, all seems shallow and pointless even to the main character, Jay Nichols, part of a group slogging through the wilds of Belgian Congo. When he later refers to the shooting—actually his shooting—of that female gorilla as a murder, his feelings are made crystal clear. In one scene another hunter explains how, during his current duties guiding a party of Brits, they've killed two hippos. For no reason except vanity. Then he lists the other casualties: “Zebra, eland, antelope, kuku, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, [impala], waterbuck, dik-dik, oribi, bushbuck, reedbuck. I can't remember them all. Yes, and a number of different gazelles. We've killed more than two-hundred animals.”
Latimer is a show-not-tell type of writer, but seems to suggest that, while shooting a charging animal may prove a type of courage, it's of the crudest kind. The same rough men don't have enough courage to be truthful. Nor do they have the guts to be evenhanded—they must always weight the scales. Fairness angers them, because then they lose their advantages. But the book is only partly about all this. There's a woman on the expedition, Eve Salles, and her role barely differs from that of the animals. She's to be conquered for vanity too. In the context of this difficult trek through the Congolese jungle, she will be left in peace only if she belongs to someone. If the cruel, intimidating asshole running the safari has his druthers, it'll be him. She resists this depressing reality, but how long can she last?
Latimer tackles his themes declaratively, methodically, repetitively, and close to flawlessly. The man could definitely weave a tale, but for modern readers it'll be uncomfortable because he occasionally takes the route of racism in his descriptive passages. That's often true of vintage literature. We write—for a living even—so we never cut ourselves off from good writing. There's always something to learn. But those who read for pleasure should focus on the pleasure first. You have no other obligation, because there's plenty of good writing out there that doesn't equate gorillas and black men. But if, like the hunters in this book, you can trek past the hazards, your patience and forbearance will be rewarded—with high tension, savage action, deep reflection, and extraordinary visual power.
In the end, Dark Memory turns out to be a safari adventure that deftly channels the mid-century classics—Hemingway, Blixen, and others. Like those books, there's a level of dismissal toward the inhabitants of the land the characters claim to love, yet also like those books, there's insight into that rarefied realm of rich white Americans in the African wild. Latimer, a highly regarded crime writer, added big outdoor adventure to his résumé with Dark Memory, and as far as we're concerned he pulled it off. Originally published in 1940, the cover at top is from the 1953 Perma-Doubleday edition, painted by Carl Bobertz. It's actually a Canadian cover. We know only because every edition we've seen online has the price of 35¢, and a small notation that says: in Canada 39¢. Ours being 39¢, it must be Canadian. Brilliantly deduced, eh?
Bogart shows the way for the makers of Congo Crossing.
This poster for Congo Crossing has all the elements—firearms, some romantic nuzzling, and a huge crocodile. The trifecta. So we watched it, and what you get here is a Technicolor adventure set in the fictive West African land of Kongotanga, which sits geographically on the border of Belgian Congo, and is a stand-in thematically for Casablanca. Which is to say Congo Crossing uses the basic set-up of Casablanca—transitory expats and shady types in an ass-end outpost riven by local political tensions and power struggles. Virginia Mayo plays a wanted woman fleeing a murder charge she picked up on the French Riviera, George Nader plays the rakish stud who you aren't sure whether to like at first, and in the supporting cast are corrupt local kingpin Tonio Selwart, killer for hire Michael Pate, and Peter Lorre as the local chief of police. Here are some Casablanca similarities:
Expats desperate to catch the next day's plane to anywhere.
A climactic airport shootout.
A woman greatly desired by two men.
Lots of gun toting guys in tropical suits.
A comedic police official whose loyalties shift where the wind blows.
A moment when one man tells a rival it looks like the beginning of a friendship.
We mention Casablanca as shorthand to give you an idea of the set-up, and now we'll mention The African Queen—another Humphrey Bogart classic—as shorthand to tell you what the middle of the movie becomes. Mayo, Nader, and a few others embark on a boat trip upriver to a jungle hospital. There Mayo realizes she's the target of a killer, and flees farther along the river with Nader, dealing with an ambush, a sexual predator, a swarm of terrible tse-tse flies, a sneaky croc, and a deadly illness. You've seen The African Queen, right? A couple of strong similarities there. The group faces these problems and, unlike their African helpers, come away more or less intact, then the movie disembarks from the river—and The African Queen—to shift back to Kongoblanca, er, we mean Kongotanga, where everything began.
So does a movie that starts and ends kind of like Casablanca and has something kind of like The African Queen stitched into the middle work? Not with this script and budget it doesn't. And though the cast is game and experienced, the material doesn't give them much of a chance to sparkle. We can't call the movie bad, but we certainly can't describe it as recommendable either. And going back to the jungle segment for a moment, why is it that in such films the people born and raised in Africa always get eaten while white folks like Mayo and Nader can snog in the bush and be just fine? That's a rhetorical question of course. Congo Crossing premiered today in 1956.
That was interesting. Next time can we just do it the normal way?
There's no festish sex or podophilia in With Naked Foot. This is actually a serious novel about whites coming to ruin in Africa, which is a crowded literary niche, but one in which Emily Hahn carved out an important place for herself. In fact, maybe the adjective “Hahnesque” should be used alongside “Hemingwayesque.” This is a person who wrote fifty-four books and more than two hundred articles and short stories, whose works were significant in romanticizing Africa and Asia for western readers, who lived in Florence and London in the mid-1920s, traveled to the Belgian Congo where she worked for the Red Cross, lived with a pygmy tribe for two years, crossed Central Africa alone on foot, and journeyed to Shanghai where she taught English for three years while becoming acquaintances with political powerhouses the Soong Sisters and the Chinese poet Zau Sinmay. With Naked Foot is, therefore, unusually well informed. It revolves around a beautiful Congolese girl named Mawa whose relationships with various lustful white men bring disaster. The reviews were rapturous, though some critics protested that it was too focused on sex. That's never a complaint you'll hear from us, though some of the usual flaws of mid-century racial fiction are evident. The cover art on this Bantam paperback was painted by an unknown, and the copyright is 1951.
Toto we’re not in Africa anymore.
Stuart Cloete’s 1943 jungle melodrama Congo Song was not glowingly reviewed, but was reprinted over and over. Its popularity certainly owed something to the fact that it nurtured all the cherished Western stereotypes about Africa. We’ll just give you the book's closing words and you’ll get the idea: This was the Congo song: the song of sluggish rivers, of the mountains, the forests; the song of the distant, throbbing drums, of the ripe fruits falling, of the mosquitoes humming in the scented dusk; the song of Entobo, of the gorilla, and the snake. The song no white man would ever sing. So, basically white people in Africa are undone by their inadequacies, which are amplified by the deep, dark, primitive, savage, mysterious Congo. Cloete’s characters include Nazis, artists, and spies, but the real creation here is Olga le Blanc, who has a pet gorilla she—wait for it—nursed at her own breast when it was an infant. Le Blanc nursed le gorille, eh? Cloete’s symbolism is pretty thick milk. Eventually the surviving characters are chased away, but they remember the Congo with bittersweet nostalgia. Kind of like in that Toto song “Africa.” It’s gonna take a lot to take me awaaaay from yoooou… There’s nothing that a hundred men or moooore could ever doooo… I bless the rains down in Aaaafricaaa…
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1937—The Hobbit is Published
J. R. R. Tolkien publishes his seminal fantasy novel The Hobbit, aka The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Marketed as a children's book, it is a hit with adults as well, and sells millions of copies, is translated into multiple languages, and spawns the sequel trilogy The Lord of Rings.
1946—Cannes Launches Film Festival
The first Cannes Film Festival is held in 1946, in the old Casino of Cannes, financed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and the City of Cannes.
1934—Arrest Made in Lindbergh Baby Case
Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous American aviator. The infant child had been abducted from the Lindbergh home in March 1932, and found decomposed two months later in the woods nearby. He had suffered a fatal skull fracture. Hauptmann was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and finally executed by electric chair in April 1936. He proclaimed his innocence to the end
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