Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes (1912)
I was considerably less than knocked out by 1932's Pirates of Venus when I read it a few years back, but was informed by a reliable authority that Burroughs was at his best much earlier on, presumably before he'd settled into a routine of hacking out one of these things every couple of weeks featuring increasingly implausible juxtapositions of his formative characters and scenarios, Tarzan at the Earth's core of Mars and so on; and true enough, Tarzan of the Apes is more or less readable, and written to a standard sufficient to suggest that its author was making an effort. In fact it starts off so well that I was anticipating something along the lines of a lost classic, or at least something greater than one might expect from its pulp and therefore supposedly inauspicious roots. Tarzan comes so close to achieving escape velocity too, carefully building upon the foundation of our jungle dude trying to work out just who the hell he is, and doing it so well that you're inclined to forgive the occasional howler - notably Tarzan having learned to read fluent English by comparing the words to the pictures in books found in the cabin built by his shipwrecked parents just before they snuffed it.

As we all know, the infant Tarzan is adopted by apes, but not any kind of ape recognised by modern biology. Rather, these creatures seem to be the bloody apes of nineteenth century mythology, as featured in novels, poetry, satirical newspaper cartoons, and even silent cinema as representative of the unknown and fearful - the bestial growling carnivore of near Satanic demeanour signifying the antithesis of civilisation, everything we understand of the world, and all that is holy. Tarzan's version of the bloody ape seems almost to be primal humanity, some forest-dwelling ancestor in keeping - I suppose - with the state of anthropology as of the early 1900s; and it is in some sense at least a relief to have this imaginary hominid as the embodiment of darkest, most fearful Africa rather than the human tribes we begin to encounter about half way through.

I've always had my doubts about Tarzan given its apparent basis in the peculiar notion of the King of the Jungle being some white bloke. So there are already people who've been living there for centuries, but add one white man and just watch him go! It's an idea about which the best can be said is that it's of its time which is always a lousy defence, the most craven application of which is often found dripping from - by way of example - H.P. Lovecraft, the man who brought you On the Creation of Niggers. I love Aitch Pee's writing, but let's face it, there were a hundred of his contemporaries who were just as much of their time without ever having written a poem called On the Creation of Niggers, or an entire body of work serving as extended metaphor for a fear of immigration. Burroughs isn't quite so strongly of his time as was Lovecraft, but after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the undercurrent and associated subtext of how much this novel just doesn't happen to like reggae, not being racialist or nuffink.

The African tribe Tarzan encounters turn out to be cannibals of the kind which routinely pop missionaries into the cooking pot, then stand around licking their lips, rolling their eyes, and rubbing their tummies. Yet cannibalism, not less so amongst African tribes, has historically proven to be a myth, usually an accusation made of that lot who live on the other side of the hill, just as we are now all apparently squinting at refugees in Calais and asking why they have mobile phones. Cannibalism has been a major taboo throughout human society at all levels from hunter-gatherer upwards, those few exceptions to the rule usually occurring specifically because it is a taboo; but I appreciate that I'm reading Tarzan of the Apes here rather than W. Arens' excellent The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy. I still have to wonder though, even without the implied cannibalism, did Burroughs really need to lay it on quite so thick? At one point we find Tarzan sneaking into the village to pinch arrows handily dipped in poison by the natives, whilst our narrative voice reflects upon what a bunch of thickies they are, these jungle bunnies, somehow missing the point of their being at least smart enough to invent something considered worth nicking by a man who has conspicuously failed to invent it for himself. Then we come to the white visitors, numerous aristocratic types who eventually recognise our boy as the son of Greystoke, and amongst their number is Jane and her black maid, essentially a big, fat clown who can't pronounce a word the same way twice and spends the rest of the time rolling her eyes and trembling with fear each time a rhinopotamus approaches the camp. She can't get the names right, silly black woman. Ha ha.

Conversely, as we approach the end of the book, Burroughs seems to take a change of tack, delivering a few surprisingly humanitarian messages in apparent contradiction to some of that which has gone before. Tarzan speaks out against big game hunting, at least big game hunting as an uneven playing field in which the quarry stands no chance, and then we have this exchange:

'Do fingerprints show racial characteristics?' he asked. 'Could you determine, for example, solely from fingerprints whether the subject was Negro or Caucasian?'

'I think not,' replied the officer.

Not quite Mahatma Gandhi, I know, but it's better than nothing, and at least supports the more dubious assumptions of the narrative as borne of laziness rather than design; and I suspect the only aspect to which Burroughs gave actual serious thought was the supposed superiority of the aristocracy, and there being such a thing as the good stock from which Tarzan is descended. Additionally, the occasional incidents of our man hunting and eating lions suggests either lack of thought or research, or a pendant to bloody ape mythology which itself stems from the same; so I suppose one might argue that the more annoying aspects of this novel came about just because Edgar couldn't be arsed, although there's enough here with which he could be arsed to make it sort of worth reading, even with the eye-rolling which may occasionally result.

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