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African Silences


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About the Author

Peter Matthiessen was born in New York City in 1927 and had already begun his writing career by the time he graduated from Yale University in 1950. The following year, he was a founder of The Paris Review. Besides At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was nominated for the National Book Award, he published six other works of fiction, including Far Tortuga and Killing Mister Watson. Matthiessen's parallel career as a naturalist and explorer resulted in numerous widely acclaimed books of nonfiction, among them The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and The Snow Leopard, which won it. Matthiessen died in 2014.


Matthiessen's previous travels in Africa have been largely confined to the East, described in The Tree Where Man Was Born ( LJ 12/1/72) and Sand Rivers ( LJ 3/1/81). In this account of three trips to Central and Western Africa, Matthiessen reports on the almost total devastation of wildlife in Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast and describes an exhibition searching for the rare Congo peacock and gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Zaire. Matthiessen's disgust for the government, ruined landscape, and many of the people he found in these countries makes for uncomfortable reading. Especially engrossing is his ``African Silences'' chapter in which he accompanied ecologist David (Jonah) Western to the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Zaire to survey populations of the forest elephant and visit the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. Matthiessen's delight in the Mbuti and his cautious optimism about the effects of the recent ban on ivory trafficking somewhat softens his otherwise grim message about the fate of the people and wildlife of Africa. Recommended for college and public libraries. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/91.-- Beth Clewis, J. Sar geant Reynolds Community Coll. Lib., Richmond, Va.

"Deeply gripping... with a prose of characteristic grace and perfectly distilled passion." -- Washington Post Book World

"Matthiessen is a great travel companion ..... His knowledge of plants,animals and people is breathtaking." -- Boston Globe

With this account of his two journeys to Africa, in 1978 and 1986, Matthiessen ( The Snow Leopard ) offers his readers a superb vicarious experience. He went first to West Africa--Senegal, Gambia and Ivory Coast--to find out which and how many animals survived in the national parks. The object of the later trip, on which he was joined by David Western of the New York Zoological Society, was to survey the Congo Basin--Central African Republic, Gabon, Zaire--for signs of the small forest elephant and perhaps solve the mystery of the so-called pygmy elephant (they prove to be simply juveniles of the forest species). In a single-engine plane piloted by Western, they traveled over vast areas of uncharted forest, using the rivers as landmarks. Matthiessen introduces us to wildlife biologists in remote stations, to native guides and to families of Mbuti pygmies. He describes ravaged lands and untouched forests, noting that virtually the entire rain forest of Central Africa has been sold. Wildlife is scarce. A dazzling, if dismaying report. (July)

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