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Friday, 24 May 2013

FFB - Empire of the Ants - the book, not the film

THE EMPIRE OF THE ANTS by Bernard Werber

In the beginning of last century H G Wells wrote a short story, "The Empire of the Ants" concerning South American ants that killed people.  (Not giant ants, as depicted in the film of the same name starring Joan Collins, who has just celebrated her 80th birthday!). Wells concluded that by 1920 these ants would be halfway down the Amazon and by 1960 they would be in Europe.  In what could be construed as a gesture of homage to the great writer, Werber's main characters are Edmund and Jonathon Wells.  In his notebook Edmund writes that "The Argentine Ants arrived in France in 1920... in 1960 they crossed the Pyrenees..."

On the Ivory Coast Edmund barely survived an encounter with a horde of driver ants, creatures regarded as living acid. They devastate everything in their path; birds and lizards are torn to shreds.  These scenes are based on Werber's near fatal experiences with the 'magnan' ants of Africa.

This isn't another anthropomorphic book. In its own way it is like a Close Encounter with an alien species. It is both fascinating and exciting and the revelations when they come are every bit as moving as Thomas Page's The Hephaestus Plague.  I for one regret spraying the hundreds of ants in my garden; now, I just keep them out of the house....

Edmund Wells had studied ants for years. He bequeathed his apartment to his nephew Jonathan with the instruction never to go into the cellar.  Inevitably, Jonathan went down there and so did investigating firemen, policemen, a detective, Jonathan's son and wife. And none returned.

Running parallel with Jonathan's story is that of several ants, in particular 327th, a young male; 4,000th, a russet huntress; 103,683rd, a soldier; and 56th, a female destined to be a queen.  Their adventures and strange encounters are exciting and bizarre, often laced with humour: "...the ants did not give up. Like a pack of tiny wolves, they threw themselves on the trail of the lizard.  They galloped under the ferns throwing off menacing pheromones that smelt of death. For the time being, this only frightened the slugs, but it helped the ants to feel terrible and invulnerable."

On p27, 327th stumbles over a mystery, a secret weapon that killed all his companions in one fell swoop.  It is only resolved on p243 in a single paragraph. But on the way other mysteries present themselves and the ant-characters exhibit ingenuity, bravery, resourcefulness and loyalty in their constant battle with nature and their enemies, be they other ant tribes, termites or spiders. There are several intriguing passages about spiders: "...when her dozens of offspring hatched, their first thought would be to eat their mother. Spiders were like that. They did not know how to say thank you."

Translated from the French by Margaret Rocques.  Empire of the Ants was published in English in 1997; it was a bestseller in Europe.  Highly recommended.


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