Tuesday, January 18, 2005


‘Foosa!’ can scare you into caring about nature

It’s a long way to Madagascar from Venice. But first-time author Ed Begen more than bridges the distance in “Foosa!: Primal Instinct,” ($24.95 Ivy House Books).

The story is about Blaine, a young college student with dreams of becoming a marine biologist. Through a series of circumstances you’ll have to read to appreciate, the young student winds up on a mission into the jungles of the red island of Madagascar and Eastern Africa. He ends up facing a situation reminiscent of that encountered by the protagonists in the movie Jurassic Park. There’s one key difference: the movie’s scary antagonists were cloned creatures but in "Foosa!" the threat is real and natural.

Begen’s at his worst when it comes to dialogue. The same jokes seem to be repeated, and the participants all talk as if they’re characters in a book.

Well, that’s what they are, you may say. Yes, but, just as a good movie makes you forget you’re in a theater, so should a fine book make you forget you’re turning pages.

The irony of the stilted dialogue is that Begen’s best quality as a writer is his ability to present caring relationships.

On all levels, from the mutual affection between a safari leader and his African helpers, to Blaine’s friendship with his adoptive parents, one is made to see clearly that these people love one another.

They are solicitous of one another’s needs, and carry themselves in manners that reflect well on them. Despite the stiff dialogue the characters, because they care about one another, compel the reader to care about them.

Begen’s other message, that our environment must be protected for our sake and that of other species, also comes across loud and clear. The characters in the book bemoan the loss of Madagascar’s vegetation and native species; even the commercial fishermen who figure prominently in the book appear to respect nature not because it’s the law, but because they care.

Begen makes us all appreciate that nature, by painting scenes of Madagascar and East Africa’s undergrowth and brush with sensitivity and eloquence.

Here’s an example:

“The clouds of dust and smoke, tainted by the smell of oil and residue from the explosion, permeated the still air. Surrounding the scene of twisted bodies and metal were the blooms of various proteases, aloes, gladioli, helichrysums, known as everlastings, and a wide variety of orchids. The trail they were on bordered evergreen forest on one side and montane grass on the other.”

Yes, there’s that little matter of an explosion and twisted bodies in that passage. But hold that thought for a moment, and consider how well Begen places the disaster within the larger context of infinite nature, as beautiful before the accident as it was after the event.

Throughout the book, from the Englewood shoreline to the coasts of the Dark Continent, that sense of nature’s timelessness prevails. But, as we all know, there’s nothing timeless about a rain forest on the brink of destruction, or a water source polluted by industrial waste. Nature can take a lot and keep on ticking, but it cannot remain healthy unless people understand their place in the scheme of things.

Begen gracefully repeats the notion that that men and women are stewards, and must take responsibility for preserving natural beauty. To his credit, the Venice author shows the story rather telling it, allowing readers to draw the conclusion about conservation without a sense of having been beat over the head.

There are layers in “Foosa,” themes and variations which are inter-related and lead to the same place.

After the accident cited in the passage from the book, an American safari leader, Diogo, and his African aide, Kapungwe, are left trapped in the wreckage. The safari leader only has a few bullets, and knows that he must save one for himself. Otherwise, he faces the prospect of being both the guest and the main course at a predator’s dinner. However, the accident left the two men out of sight of one another, making it impossible for the safari guide to dispatch his helper.

Diogo uses a few bullets to scare off some lurking beasts. He then spares the last rounds to shoot the locks off the cages of two small animals the men were transporting. His rationale is that otherwise the animals would starve to death in the cages.

He could have saved a bullet for himself. But because he cannot see Kapungwe, he can’t extend the same mercy to his friend and guide. So he decides they both will die at the fangs and claws of the beats.

I mentioned layers and variations. Consider how Diogo chose to free the animals and share his friend’s imminent death. Stewardship, Begen illustrates in the story, involves not only a respect for nature, but a respect for fellow human beings.

I’ve made it through this review without once describing what foosas are or what they did in the book. That alone is so exciting, it will make time fall away as you read.

But what I did report on was, I believe, the more lasting impact of the book. Long after your pulse has returned to normal and your mind has returned from the wild beauty of Africa, you’ll remember Begen’s lessons of humanity interdependence.

James M. Abraham, an independent book columnist,
can be reached at book-broker@hotmail.com.

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