Friday, March 25, 2016

Adventure classics – Haggard’s last hurrah: or is it?

by Michael Crichton
After inspiring decades of imitators of his “lost city, lost race” genre, the influence of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 adventure, King Solomon’s Mines, seemed to have run its course. Or had it?

Nearly a century after the publication of Haggard’s work, along came Michael Crichton’s 1980 thriller, Congo. It and its namesake (although critically panned) movie version were followed a year later by the first of the Indian Jones series of movies. Two decades later, Anglo-Afghan journalist Tahir Shah’s nonfiction travel memoir, In Search of King Solomon’s Mines, followed, all gleefully treading the trail of a search for legendary lost treasures among exotic peoples and places. Where will it all end?

As readers of previous posts will recall (or if not, read the full story here). Haggard’s story began with a search for a lost brother and a legend told by African white hunter Allan Quartermain about the legendary mines that supplied the fabulous wealth of the biblical King Solomon. Although the Bible doesn’t mention diamonds among the treasures of Solomon, Haggard was inspired by the finds of South African diamond deposits discovered shortly before his own African sojourn in the 1870’s.

Following a centuries’ old map sketched by a dying Portuguese, Quartermain and his team set out to find the mines (and almost coincidentally, the lost brother of one of his crew). Among the group of explorers was one who, unknown to the rest, was a member of the lost warrior tribe guarding the treasure site.

It’s not to take any credit away from Crichton’s re-imagining of the story when I point out his version includes another white hunter (but one far less principled than Quartermain); the satellite pictures that are the maps of the current age; a missing member of an earlier expedition; and a reference in an old Portuguese book of exploration to the lost African diamond-trading city of Zinj.

And as it happens, the book’s illustrations bear a striking resemblance to the dreams of the most charming of Crichton’s innovations, the language-using young gorilla, Amy, inspired by the gorilla Koko, famous for her ability to understand and use a modified version of American Sign Language.

Unlike captive-born Koko, Amy was found as a youngster in the African Congo region, clinging to her dead mother, a trauma has begun to invade her dreams. Seeking more information about the nature of those dreams, Peter Elliott, the researcher in charge of her education, supplies her with paper and paint. Although she has never revisited the site of her infancy, she paints a jungle full of ruined buildings, the very buildings of ruined, fabled Zinj.

Elliott is about to try to reach Zinj on his own when he receives a call from the secretive exploration company Earth Resources Technology Services, Inc., (ERTS). An expedition to a source of high-grade diamonds in the Congo has been wiped out by what appear, however improbably, to be rogue gorillas and ERTS needs the help of a primate specialist familiar with the region. Elliott accepts ERTS’ offer to accompany their team, bringing Amy along as interpreter between humans and their close primate relatives, and the adventure begins.

In the more than 35 years that have passed since Congo's publication, the late 20th century technology has lost some of its edge, but Crichton's suspense never fails. And there’s always Amy, probably the most fascinating character he ever penned.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins an April of mysterious adventures with The Laughing Policeman, by husband and wife writing team Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall.)

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