Events develop in the mid-50’s. The novel begins with the meeting of Father Tassin, a seventy-year-old member of the Jesuit order, and Saint-Denis, director of a large state reserve in French Equatorial Africa. Father Tassen is a scientist who studies in Africa his paleontological hypotheses and has among the missionaries the reputation of a person more occupied with the science of the origin of man than the salvation of the soul. Saint-Denis is one of those colonial officials who love Africa, who, after working for a long time as an administrator in the outback, has done a lot to alleviate the fate of the local population. However, his long life experience made him a pessimist, and he does not believe in the ability of state bodies to take anything radical in order to protect people and nature from the onset of technology. Saint-Denis does not like civilization, he is obsessed with the obsession to save black Africans from the materialistic West, to help them preserve their tribal traditions and beliefs, to prevent Africans from following the tracks of Europeans and Americans. Admiring African rituals, he is friends with local sorcerers, with one of whom he even has the conviction that he will turn him into an African tree after death. He used to regret that he was not born with black skin, because he considered Africans to be children of nature. But now he regretfully states that they go farther and farther from nature, because local revolutionaries poison Africa with
Father Tassen rode a long and hard road for him to listen to the story of Saint-Denis about Morel and everything connected with it. Morel is the main character of the novel. A romanticist and an idealist, he tries to protect from the destruction of elephants, mercilessly exterminated by white hunters because of tusks and black local people because of meat. Morel had once managed to survive in a German concentration camp due to the fact that he and his comrades thought of these strong and free animals walking along the vast expanses of Africa. He tries to save them partly from gratitude, but mainly because he links the salvation of animals with the salvation of the renewed, regenerated thanks to them humanity. He dreams of something like a historical reserve, similar to the reserves in Africa, where hunting is prohibited.
The main weapon of Morel is appeals and manifestos, which he proposes to sign to all whom he meets on his way. There are not many people who want to sign, but gradually a group of people sympathizing with him are formed around Morel. Some of them sincerely share his concerns. Such is, first of all, the Danish natural scientist Per Kvist, who began his struggle for the preservation of nature as early as the beginning of the century. Another reliable ally, or more precisely, an ally – the German Minna. Once in the post-war Berlin, this beautiful girl made friends with a Soviet officer who paid for this friendship either freedom or, most likely, life. After that, Minna, having lost interest in life, sank to its very bottom. The struggle for the preservation of fauna became for her and a struggle for the return of human dignity to herself. Another of the sympathizers to Morel – former American pilot Forsythe, who once fought in Korea and, being shot down, was forced to participate in the propaganda of an operation designed by the Chinese and North Korean propaganda agencies, whose aim was to convince world public opinion in that, that American troops used bacteriological weapons. As a result, when he returned from captivity, life at home was impossible for him. He was expelled from the army in disgrace, and he left the United States illegally, left for Africa and took refuge in Chad, and there, recognizing the justice of Morel’s actions, became his ally. whose goal was to convince world public opinion that American troops used bacteriological weapons. As a result, when he returned from captivity, life at home was impossible for him. He was expelled from the army in disgrace, and he left the United States illegally, left for Africa and took refuge in Chad, and there, recognizing the justice of Morel’s actions, became his ally. whose goal was to convince world public opinion that American troops used bacteriological weapons. As a result, when he returned from captivity, life at home was impossible for him. He was expelled from the army in disgrace, and he left the United States illegally, left for Africa and took refuge in Chad, and there, recognizing the justice of Morel’s actions, became his ally.
Among the opponents of Morel stands out first of all a certain Orsini, a hunter-athlete. In an effort to give a more convex view of this man, Saint-Denis resorts to analogy. He tells of an American writer who somehow in a drunken state explained to him that regularly visiting Africa to shoot another batch of lions, elephants and rhinos there, he is forced to fear life, before death, before inevitable old age, before illness, before impotence. When the fear became unbearable, this writer tried to identify him mentally with a rhinoceros or an elephant, with something that can be killed. After that for six weeks of hunting he as though passed a course of treatment which for half a year relieved him of a schizophrenic obsession. Something similar happened to Orsini, whose whole life, according to Saint-Denis, was. a long riot against his own insignificance, which just made him kill the strong and beautiful animals. Orsini, not without the courage of a small shavka, defended his own nothingness from a too high image of a man in whom he did not have a place. He killed elephants to cope with feelings of inferiority. Being a natural antagonist of Morel, he at his peak organizes a massive shooting of elephants and eventually dies of a shameful death trampled by elephants.
At some point, Morel, seeing that his petitions in defense of animals do not help, that the colonial officials not only do not support him, but also repair all kinds of obstacles, decided to start independently to punish the most malicious animal fighters, mostly rich planters and ivory traders. He, like-minded, sets fire to their farms and warehouses with ivory. A few more people are joining him: some of them are at odds with the law, and some are dreaming of freeing Africa from colonial domination. Such is the brilliant leader of the liberation movement Vaitari, a black handsome man, who received a fine education in Paris, who was at one time a deputy of the French parliament. He tries to use Morel for his own purposes, although he is essentially the same Morel antagonist as Orsini, just like him, an enemy of African nature. The fact is that, while ashamed of the backwardness of Africa, he does not want to contribute to its progress by gradually improving the conditions of life; inspired by the example of the USSR, is a supporter of the accelerated industrialization of the continent. He is ready to turn Africa into the same concentration camp in which Stalin turned Russia, in order to compel compatriots to abandon ancient customs and force them to build roads, mines, dams. And for this he is ready to destroy all African elephants. Laughing deep down over Morel’s idealism, he cynically uses it, trying to betray his struggle for the salvation of nature for the political struggle, and secretly gives his young followers the task of destroying the naive Frenchman so that he can be declared the first white man to give his life for the independence of Africa, and create from it a useful for African nationalism legend. At the same time, he and his detachment are destroying a herd of elephants, so that, by selling tusks, they can buy weapons on the proceeds. Of course, Vaytari’s personal ambitions, associated with the inferiority complex inherent in the overwhelming majority of politicians, also play an important role.
In the final analysis, it turns out that in the struggle against the idealist Morel all forces joined, either interested in the destruction of elephants, or simply indifferent to everything. At the end of the novel, those who were with Morel are arrested, and he himself goes into the forest. Perhaps he died, but the author does not give up hope that Morel is alive and continues to struggle somewhere.