I must admit, I did roll my eyes when I first read environmental activist Jim Britell’s words of praise on the cover of Ishmael: “From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories – the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.”
But a few pages in, I began to understand what he meant. Sure, I have read writing that is prettier, that is grittier, the kind from which you want to read out aloud to whoever is sitting next to you.
But there is something elemental about this book, something strangely uplifting and comforting even though it is for the most part a tragic story of a beautiful, monstrous, ill-fated species: us. It took Quinn 15 years to write Ishmael; it’s a distillation of great personal wisdom and it shows. It’s the kind of novel you will want to gift to everyone you like. At the start of the book, a man – our narrator – sees an advertisement in the Personals section of his local newspaper that reads: TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
The man is infuriated. Where was this teacher when he was a young man saddened and bewildered when the “children’s revolt of the 60s and 70s… dwindled into a fashion statement,” before the part of himself that “he sort of liked and admired,” died? The man decides to go ahead and meet the ‘charlatan’ who advertised anyway – to satisfy himself that this was yet another scam. Arriving at the address he finds an empty room at the end of which, behind a sheet of glass, sits a massive full-grown gorilla chomping on a leafy sprig. The man is startled, mesmerised, and then something strange begins to happen… the gorilla begins to ‘speak’ to the narrator ‘with his eyes’. The gorilla’s name is Ishmael, and as it turns out, he is the teacher.
Ishmael, though theoretically a novel, sits delicately on the fence between fiction and non-fiction, delving into history, pre-history, anthropology, moral philosophy and even a splash of Bible studies, through a gorilla-guru and his human apprentice. It’s a rare kind of book, accessible to people of all mindsets – poetic or ‘practical’, of all ages, races, nationalities and religions. Having said that, it is pretty certain creationists will not like Ishmael very much, but they will have to agree that there is something to be learned from a book that tries to explain how on earth humans brought themselves, the planet and its creatures here – to this edge of utter and total collapse.
But even if you’re not much of a bunny hugger, don’t worry; this is not an overly precious plea from a fuzzy talkative primate. Ishmael can be quite rude, rife with wit or sarcasm depending on the day, always brimful of knowledge and wisdom, and yet somewhat detached. Or perhaps he’s just tired. Maybe he doesn’t really exist. Maybe this is Quinn being Kafka! But really, it doesn’t matter. Ishmael is a dazzling figment that helps us (much like some sort of irate psychoanalyst) to reach startlingly obvious conclusions that we should have known all along, by saying pertinent things and asking significant, if sardonic, questions.
For example, he speaks of the unhappiness of captive animals that display –“an irreversible rejection of life,” but have no concept of themselves as ‘captives’, or of captivity as the source of their despair.
And then, quite casually, he asks: “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?” “Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”
“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contribute daily to the destruction of the world.”
“Yes, that’s so.”
Why don’t you stop?”
I shrugged, “Frankly, we don’t know how.”
“You’re captives of a civilisational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”
It’s something to think about. It is true that in answer to the question of why his/her species have allowed themselves to come to this dangerous precipice, any human’s explanation might always be ‘because it is human nature.’ Ishmael asks that we question this explanation, to see that we are its captives, and to escape from it. He suggests that ‘civilised’ humans are captives of a story with a flawed premise chosen by misinformed ancestors. This story, this ‘ambient mythology’ of our ‘Mother Culture’ is so subversive that we don’t even know it exists.
We are trapped in an idea much like the citizens of Nazi Germany who were trapped by Hitler’s idea. Ishmael prods us to ask why so many fast-vanishing ‘primitive’ human communities don’t suffer from this supposedly ‘innate’ suicidal programming. Could it be that they chose their ‘primitive’ lifestyle not because they were backward and stupid but because they thought it was the intelligent thing to do? Because they thought it prudent to follow an unspoken law that all Earth’s creatures had followed from the very beginning of time?
Of course, never suggesting we should return to our happy hunter-gathering days out of the sheer goodness of our hearts, here’s where Quinn throws one of my favourite Ishmael punches:
“…if there does happen to be a law that governs behaviour in the community of life in general [would humans be exempt from it?”
“Well, that’s what Mother Culture says.”
“And what do you say”
“I don’t know. I don’t see how a law for turtles or butterflies could be of much relevance to us. I assume that turtles and butterflies follow the law you’re talking about.”
“That’s right, they do. As to relevance, the laws of aerodynamics weren’t always relevant to you, were they?”
“When did they become relevant?”
“Well ... when we wanted to fly.”
“When you want to fly, the laws governing flight become relevant.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And when you’re on the brink of extinction and want to live for a while longer, the laws governing life might conceivably become relevant.”
“Yes, I suppose they might.”
Ishmael is beguilingly easy to read, and when you’re done you’ll have found that you have been through a highly philosophical, intellectual wringer, investigating to the point of pain what it means to be human and yet, oddly, you won’t feel like slashing your wrists. Ishmael is the kind of book that helps you make sense of the world, empowers you with insight and somehow manages to generate a twinkling of that most limited resource of our times: Hope.
Reviewed by Tara SahgalDaniel Quinn, Published by: Bantam Books, Paperback Price Rs. 485/-