Book-Sukh: My Family and Other Animals

When I was moving to Germany, I did not think it would be difficult to come by English books. This may vary with the city you’re in and the appetite (or tolerance) people there have for the language. Down here in Stuttgart, though you can count on finding ng öffentlicher Bücherschränke or Baumbibliotheken in every part of the city (there are two within a 500m radius of where I live), they are likely to have only a small percentage of English books – if at all. Similarly, the English or foreign language sections in both libraries and bookstores are notoriously small – again, if at all.

The result is a story for every book you manage to get your hands on. Here I review Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a book I found sad and lonely in a Zu Verschenken box in a street east of Marienplatz. Dog-eared, worn and yellow, it smelled all the better for its old age – like wood washed and fragrant after the rain. The back cover description – something I approach with caution because it tends to give away at least half the plot – seemed to suggest that there was no plot and that the book was rather like a child’s diary. Having never read anything like it, and excited by the prospect of something light and funny, I decided to keep it.

My Family and Other Animals, first published in 1956, is the first in a series of memoirs British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell wrote of the five years he spent with his family in the scenic Greek island of Corfu as a kid. The other two books are Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of Gods. These are often combined unofficially in a single volume known as The Corfu Trilogy. As the name suggests, the book is – partly – a satirical commentary on each of the Durrells’ peculiar personalities as they come together as one close-knit riot of a family, and partly a 10-year-old nature-enthusiast and animal collector’s journal of adventures through the groves, hills, swamps and beaches of Corfu.

It is an absolute delight. If you’re going to lean back against an old tree on the lakeside, and read a book in the cool shade on a hot day, this is your pick. 

If it’s the relentless German winter, and the cold is getting to your bones, let little Gerry transport you to hot, dreamy afternoons at the island where he sits drowsily in warm, shallow waters, before sauntering to the nearest cottage to treat himself to bread, wine and fruits at one of the local Greeks he has befriended. 

Unless you’re into zoology, you’re unlikely to ever have the time to observe tortoises in their habitat and report on a courtship as if it was a sensational love story. Or to realize how motherhood comes naturally to the female swallow while the male goes berserk in figuring out how to provide for the nestlings.

The book is not a thorough autobiography, and leaves out some very important characters from the Durrell’s time in Corfu. But conversations are mostly reported unapologetically, with the result that some parts come out as what the modern reader would describe as racist, sometimes classist. That said, the book is a hearty and incredibly witty account of a family where each member independently pursues his or her unique passion – none of which come in the way of their hosting lavish parties together and running down to the beach to bathe in the sea.

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