My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals is a memoir by naturalist Gerald Durrell, set on the island of Corfu, where he spent part of his childhood between 1935 and 1939. (The book was written in 1956). Young Gerry loves exploring the island’s plants, insects and animals. He’s usually accompanied by the family dog, Roger, and adopts a myriad of pets, from tortoises to pigeons to rose-beetles. Gerry and Roger also befriend local peasants and learn wildlife tips from them.

The book’s written with the exuberance of an English gentleman’s love of adjectives, metaphors and similes – such colourful language! There are humorous dialogues between family members, who are each full of themselves. I learnt from Wikipedia that Gerry’s caricaturised brother, Larry, went on to become the writer Lawrence Durrell. Gerry himself founded a conservation trust and a zoo on the island of Jersey.

The book is a birthday gift from my two best friends – but they could only find the children’s edition with colourful animal illustrations on the cover. There’s also a good sized “9+” mark on the back cover, therefore I’ve been a little uneasy reading it on the bus.

I’m halfway through the book, here’s a wonderful description of the arrival of spring in Corfu:

With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled, scented, and a-flutter with new leaves. The cypress-trees that had tossed and hissed during the winds of winter now stood straight and sleek against the sky, covered with a misty coat of greenish-white cones. Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, bubbling out among the tree-roots and tumbling down the banks. Under the myrtles, the grape-hyacinths lifted buds like magenta sugar-drops, and the gloom of the oak-thickets was filled with the dim smoke of a thousand blue day-irises. Anemones, delicate and easily wind-bruised, lifted ivory flowers the petals of which seemed to have been dipped in wine. Vetch, marigold, asphodel, and a hundred others flooded the fields and woods. Even the ancient olives, bent and hollowed by a thousand springs, decked themselves in clusters of minute creamy flowers, modest and yet decorative, as became their great age. It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord has been struck. Everyone and everything heard it and responded. It was apparent in the gleam of flower-petals, the flash of bird wings and the sparkle in the dark, liquid eyes of the peasant girls. In the water-filled ditches the frogs that looked newly enamelled snored rapturous chorus in the lush weeds. In the village coffee-shops the wine seemed redder, and somehow, more potent. Blunt, work-calloused fingers plucked at guitar strings with strange gentleness, and rich voices rose in lilting, haunting song (98).

These and other passages remind me of Yaşar Kemal’s Bir Ada Hikâyesi , a pastoral/social realist trilogy set on a fictional Aegean island. Here’s a funny passage where Gerry is observing the swallow nests in their veranda:

I grew to know these swallow families very well and watched their daily work with considerable interest. What I took to be the two females were very similar in behaviour, earnest, rather preoccupied, over-anxious, and fussy. The two males, on the other hand, displayed totally different characters. One of them, during the work of lining the nest, brought excellent material, but he refused to treat it as a job of work. He would come swooping home, carrying a wisp of sheep’s wool in his mouth, and would waste several minutes skating low over the flowers in the garden, drawing figures of eight, or else weaving in and out of the columns that held up the grape-vine. His wife would cling to the nest and chitter at him exasperatedly, but he refused to take life seriously. The other female also had trouble with her mate, but it was trouble of a different sort. He was, if anything, over-enthusiastic. He seemed determined to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to provide his young with the finest nest-lining in the colony. But, unfortunately, he was no mathematician, and, try as he would, he could not remember the size of his nest. He would come flying back, twittering in an excited if somewhat muffled manner, carrying a chicken or a turkey feather as big as himself, and with such a thick quill it was impossible to bend it. It would generally take his wife several minutes to convince him that, no matter how they struggled and juggled, the feather would not fit into the nest. Acutely disappointed he would eventually drop the feather so that it whirlpooled down to join the ever-increasing pile on the ground beneath, and then fly off in search of something more suitable. In a little while he would be back, struggling under a load of sheep’s wool so matted and hard with earth and dung that he would have difficulty in getting up to the eaves, let alone the nest (130-31).

Well, I’m glad I’m reading this fantastic book, thank you guys!

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