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Cohen raises the implicit question but is too wise to answer it directly. (I’m not. The answer is yes.) He does, however, anatomize the history of the 20th-century banana trade in terms of different responses to human vulnerability.
There are men of action and there are men of words: The contrast between them is a sort of shadow narrative in “The Fish That Ate the Whale.” Of that berserker Sam Zemurray, Cohen writes: “If he does not say much, it’s because he considers small talk a weakness. Wars are not won by running your mouth.” At one point, when describing the backbreaking labor of clearing the Honduran jungle, Cohen seems to side with the men of action against his own kind, writers. He notes that it’s easy to sit in an office and write about such work with a pen, and another thing entirely to do it with a machete.
The sentiment is that of a character from Shakespeare’s “Richard III”: “Talkers are no good doers.” Those words, however, spoken as they are by one of the Duke of Clarence’s murderers, bear a layer of irony. The audience sympathizes not with the murderer, but with his victim, the duke, a renowned wordsmith who delivers one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful speeches. And ultimately, Cohen’s narrative, like Shakespeare’s, implicitly favors the talkers over the doers.
At the end of Cohen’s story, impetuous doers such as Zemurray not only cede the moral high ground, but also live to witness the terrifying power of the talkers: men like Edward Bernays, the inventor of modern public relations, who could manipulate the most powerful government on earth, and Joseph Goebbels, who could manipulate the most vicious of mobs. Cohen notes that Pablo Neruda’s poetic assault on Zemurray’s United Fruit Company helped loose the revolutionary spirit of Che Guevara. “Zemurray, who defeated the jungle with the sweat of a hundred thousand workers,” Cohen writes, “was, in part, undone by forty-two lines of poetry.”
Zemurray’s Latin American misadventures helped breed inflammatory rhetoric that led all the way to the Cuban missile crisis and nearly beyond that into World War III. Fortunately, the world’s leaders ultimately retained the lessons of kindergarten and used their words. On moral grounds both high and low, the talkers carried the day. If some level of this book proposes a contest of Cohen vs. Zemurray, then the win goes rather unambiguously to Cohen; to paraphrase Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is mightier than the banana.
Austin Ratner is a Sami Rohr Prize winner for “The Jump Artist” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009). His forthcoming novel, “In the Land of the Living,” will be published in 2013 by Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown.