The Devil’s Garden, by Edward Docx, Picador RRP £12.99, 240 pages
Charles Darwin was troubled by ants. They were, he wrote, “the one special difficulty” in evolutionary theory. The problem is that the inscrutable insects co-operate too much. Sterile females sacrifice their reproductive potential to serve their queen; suicide for the common good is widespread. How can such selflessness fit with competitive natural selection? What place altruism?
Such questions fascinate the narrator of Edward Docx’s third novel, The Devil’s Garden. To Dr John Forle, the study of ants offers a key to understanding not only evolution but human nature. At a remote South American river station, the myrmecologist spends his days studying “Devil’s Gardens”, eerie forest clearings in which ant colonies have destroyed all life other than what supports them.
Outwardly, Forle is a model of reason; inside is a different story. We learn that he has travelled to the jungle after his lover’s death and his melodramatic talk of making “one last effort to save my soul” suggests a psyche in turmoil. Emotional self-absorption has left the doctor “shamefully ignorant” of his new home, its peoples and politics. As his punning surname suggests, he is an innocent waiting to fall. The agents of Forle’s undoing are a colonel and a hedonistic judge, who arrive in a whiff of sulphur to disturb the river station’s camaraderie. Both are involved in a census. But their exact roles are as opaque as the motives for the registration. When Forle witnesses an act of torture, unease turns to horror. His blindness to the world soon looks culpable rather than just careless.
Inevitably, given its setting and the metaphorical load it tries to shoulder, Docx’s novel owes a debt to Heart of Darkness. It’s not easy to repay: the naive first-worlder who braves the dark interior and learns lessons is an increasingly unworkable premise. Even the judge’s tart assertion that westerners come to the jungle to find either “a green heaven” or a “green hell” suggests an author covering his back.
In an age of 24/7 media, Forle’s naivety seems as implausible as it is “shameful”, and insights about the collision between developed and developing world (oil exploitation creates conflict, western cocaine-takers collude in others’ misery) may strike readers as self-evident. The parallels between ant and human realms feel prefabricated, while it’s hard to engage emotionally with a wispily sketched supporting cast of characters, including a smug missionary, a beautiful blonde assistant and a German guide straight out of a Werner Herzog film.
Several of them suffer terribly as Docx pursues themes of selflessness and sacrifice. Splatted like insects to make a point, they might have wished more from their creator.
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival