Book Report

A Comparison between “The Bafut Beagles” by Gerald Durrell and “The Emperor of Scent” by Chandler Burr

I am writing this comparison because I want to learn more about what humor is. I have been telling a lot of jokes lately and I would like to be able to compose better ones. We have been living among Australians for a year, and I enjoyed their sense of humor. The two books I have chosen could hardly be more different. The Bafut Beagles, by Gerald Durrell, is an easy to read, nature oriented, book. On the other hand, The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr,is intelligent, much harder to read and more scientifically oriented. The subject matter itself, “scent”, is much more complicated and the descriptions of the characters and the situations are more sophisticated than Durrell's book. The main factors that both books have in common are the following: they are both non-fiction, they are both very descriptive, which makes it easier to picture the humorous situation, and for both the main humor is derived from mammalian behavior.

The Bafut Beagles is about Gerald's trip to Bafut, Africa, to collect animals for his zoo. Each chapter is about the chase for another rare animal. He goes into great detail about the colors, patterns and habits of various animals. Examples of animals include the Hairy Frog, the Rock Hyrax and the Black Eared Squirrel. Gerald Durrell was born in India and lived in various other places around the world, including Corfu, in Greece.

The Emperor of Scent is about Luca Turin and his obsession with perfume and with the last mystery of the senses. While Luca was reading a book about smell, he notices an old theory of smell, the Shapist model, based on a theory to explain scent through molecules. He was immediately inspired to come up with a new theory of smell to counter the “Illogical Shape Theory”, as he called it. Using his large knowledge of perfume and its ingredients, he constructs a sound and reasonable theory of scent based in vibration. His theory is that all the smell molecules have a specific vibration, and that our brain recognizes those vibrations and and says: “That's lavender” or “That's wood”. To prove this theory he knew that he needed to find two different smells with the same shape of molecules, but with different vibrations, as measured on his instrument. This would prove that the shape of the molecules is irrelevant, which would throw the old theory out. He found these two smells, and presented them at a conference in India. Many people didn't believe him. They thought he had contaminated the smells. When Luca got back to England, he ran the chemicals through a special tube at one of the major perfumeries. The chemicals was pure! He had solid proof against the Shapists.

One of the funniest parts in the Bafut Beagles is when Gerald Durrell teaches the Fon of Bafut and his court the last part of the Conga dance. The fon, having never seen a dance like that, says it's a “foine dance”. The way Durrell describes it, you can really see a bunch of drunk and cheery Africans yell: “One, two, three, keek!” while dancing. I think the main reason that makes this scene funny is that the scene is exaggerated. But that may be because I think that we wouldn't be that enthusiastic, so why should they? What also makes this amusing is that Durrell doesn't translate the Pidgin they talk into English, so you have to work your way around half formed English.

The scene from The Emperor of Scent that I choose as a favorite is concerned with smelly cheeses, rotting octopi, and Isonitriles. Luca is talking about bad smells, and he mentions a cheese called Soumatrain. He explains: “When Americans smell this, they say: “Good God”, when Japanese smell this, they say: “Now I must commit suicide” but when the French smell it, they think: “Where is the bread?”. This is because “the whole of French culture is based in stinky cheese, rotting grapes and dirty women”. He also says: “The worst natural smell I have ever smelled is rotting octopi. Fix that in your head, the imagine a chemical called Isonitrile (which comes closest to this smell), not a pretty picture, he?” What makes this scene funny is also exaggeration. For example, not all Japanese will think: “Now I must commit suicide!” This is exaggerating a stereotype. When I first read this book, I thought it was very scientific. This is a perfect paragraph to illustrate this. Who else would mention Isonitriles in the middle of a paragraph about stinky cheeses and rotting octopi?

I have had a little success in telling jokes lately. I hope that what I have learned from this book report will help me make better ones. I have found that some ways to introduce humor are using exaggeration and stereotyping, describing chaotic situations and putting something out of context. Actual situations described in vivid detail make it easier to visualize what happened, and it consequently increases the effectiveness of the humor.

What is funny really depends on your level of maturity and on your own sense of humor. A perfect example of this is the Captain Underpants series. An adult or a mature teenager will think it should be locked in a radiation proof canister and jettisoned into space, while a 6-year old who just learned to read will think that it is the best thing since sliced bread! On the other hand, a 6 year old who just learned to read would think The Emperor of Scent should be locked into a radiation proof canister and jettisoned into space, while an adult or an mature teenager would think it was one of the better slices of bread.