Gros Michel

When you think of bananas, you probably think of today’s banana, yellow and boaty. Its name is Cavendish, as it happens, which summons French novellas and bluebloods. I learned of it on Saturday afternoon at the Southern Rail. A horticulturist named Mark Paradis (like paradise)from Montreal spun a tale of madness and a long-lost banana strain.

I’ve never known anything other than the Cavendish. Mark the horticulturist, however, had nothing but contempt for it. He explained that it was a mediocre cultivar, a lousy banana that happened to ship well and be resistant to disease. (I want to mention, quickly, that Mark wore a bowler and was drinking Scotch.) He explained that once upon a time there was another strain, a glorious strain, and it was called the Gros Michel. I thought he said the Roman Shell. So did my friends. We leaned forward and asked, “The Roman Shell?”

“Yes,” said Mark Paradis, and tipped back his glass. “The Gros Michel. Incredible strain. You couldn’t ship any other fruit in those days. Figs, persimmons– it all rotted. Only the banana shipped. And the banana, incidentally, is the only fruit without seeds. It’s a rhizome,” he said solemnly. “South America was planted with Gros Michels. Swaths of them, thousands they planted. The sweetest, most luscious banana you ever tasted doesn’t compare.” He settled back and contemplated. We were sitting on the veranda under those triangle sails that keep off the sun. I asked him if he’d ever eaten one. He regarded me.

“Oh no! No no no. That was years before we were born,” he said. “The fungus came. It was called the Panama disease. It killed everything.”

“All of the Roman Shells died?” Josh asked.

“Yes,” said Mark, “every last one.”

We were all silent. Below the veranda the Carrboro Craft Market was shutting up shop and people were folding up tents.

“Now,” continued Mark, fixing me with an eye, “Now there’s a new strain of fungus in Australia at the moment. It’s ravaging the Cavendish.” I gasped.

“Yes. One day there may not be any more.” He swirled his drink in the glass.

“What if there were no more bananas, ever?” I wondered. “Can you imagine trying to explain to your children and grandchildren about a fruit that looks like it’s from outer space?”

“There was a man,” Mark said, “who was obsessed with the Gros Michel. He was a scientist, a genetic engineer. He spent thirty years of his life trying to recreate a Gros Michel. In the end it drove him crazy. He hanged himself in his lab, with a note that read, I have spent thirty years of my life trying to find the Gros Michele and I have not succeeded and so I find that life is no longer worth living.”

“Did he hang himself from a banana tree?” I asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Mark said. The sun went behind the triangle sails.

It was almost too perfect. One man’s quest. I want to know what drove him, exactly. Did he want the glory of having recreated an extinct strain? Was it the drive of history and the thrill of resurrecting a lost thing? Was it the tug of Atlantis?

Or was it a Frankensteinian passion? Did this man think of himself romantically, of those long lonely nights in the laboratory, of a pattern that would present itself, genii-like, to him, as a Magic Eye presents itself? You stare and you stare and suddenly a horse head jumps out at you but it was always there? And it was only your mind that had shifted? Did he read Mary Shelley and identify with that lonely, misunderstood scientist? Did he watch Young Frankenstein and laugh, but the laughter was maybe a bit hollow as he contemplated the similarities between himself and Gene Wilder? or possibly the danger of a genetically engineered banana?

What I want to believe is that this man was obsessed with the thought of tasting the Gros Michel. It must be my Christian upbringing and our tales of forbidden fruit– the old paradigm of Eve and the luscious fruit (not apple, they don’t grow in the Fertile Crescent)— that fruit that looked so good, so succulent, rounded, maybe fuzzy like a peach, or the golden hairs on a brown belly, and flush with the promise of red juice coursing under a skin so thin it was more like a formality, a fruit just asking to be bitten, asking for teeth– what I want to believe is that this scientist dreamed of tasting the Gros Michel every day. His mouth watered just thinking of it, of the flawless yellow peel that fatly ribboned off, the definitive lines edged in black, the shape that fit in the hand so perfectly, the mealy sweetness like his own mealy heart– he dreamed of tasting it for thirty years. It would be a fruit that thrust itself into his hand, like some Edenic firstfruit of Andrew Marvell’s Garden:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

He dreamed of playing Eve and God! He wanted to create the fruit and eat it too, like some filicidal manioc. (ha!) His was the mortal sin of Eve and Goethe. The age-old desire for knowledge, that reviled and fearsome thing. In the end, of course, it proved too much. He hanged himself among the fronds, a broken, defeated Faust, an exiled Eve. “Cursed is the ground for your sake;/In toil you shall eat of it/All the days of your life.” Genesis 3:17

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