America's top banana
The latest tale by the author of 'Tough Jews' is full of wheeling-and-dealing drama but is marred by its style
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The Fish that Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen, Jonathan Cape, £17.99
"Maybe it was the pent-up energy of dozens of thwarted Jewish gener-ations confined to the ghettos of Europe… or maybe it was with him in the cradle, the intangible thing that made him go”. Either way, for Rich Cohen, the extraordinary story of the “banana king” Samuel Zemurray is “a parable of the American dream”. He embodied the drive and the immigrant’s will to succeed that can flourish in a free, open society, but also the likelihood that “you can’t be both powerful and righteous”.
Zemurray was born in 1877, in Tsarist Russia. Sent to America by his family at 14, he ended up in the port of Mobile, Alabama, where his exploits in the banana industry began. Tall, confident and fiercely ambitious, Zemurray spotted a gap in the market and quickly established a thriving business which led him to the source of the action, the steamy lowlands of Central America.
His other great quality as a businessman was his immense chutzpah. Cohen recounts how Zemurray was summoned by the State Department in 1910 and informed that he must desist from his business activities in Honduras. Faced with the opposition of the mighty American government, this lone Russian immigrant did not back down. Instead, he organised a coup d’etat by despatching a group of mercenaries to install a puppet president sympathetic to his ambitions.
Later, in 1929, Zemurray’s hugely successful Cuyamel fruit company merged with the mighty United Fruit. Having acquired enormous wealth, the banana king took early retirement. But he was unable to sit on the sidelines for long and a few years later he gathered together the necessary voting rights, marched into a meeting of the patrician Bostonian directors and announced that the president of the company was fired. “You gentlemen have been f***ing up this business long enough”, he bluntly declared.
Thus the lone fish consumed the giant corporate whale, and Zemurray became a dominant figure in Central America, a man who could direct entire governments by picking up a phone. But the tide of history turned against United Fruit. As Zemurray aged and eventually retired, the company became a hated symbol of Yankee interference in Central America. Their joint participation (with the CIA) in a Guatemalan coup in 1954 was a step too far, and the empire entered a fatal downward spiral.
Zemurray’s Jewishness mainly found its expression through Zionism, inspired by an unlikely friendship with Chaim Weizmann. Cohen tantalisingly suggests Zemurray’s role as a Zionist power-broker in the crucial pre-1948 period may have swung a number of Central American banana republics in the UN vote.
Rich Cohen, who has published a number of books on prominent (often unscrupulous) Jewish American immigrants, has undoubtedly picked a remarkable subject and infuses the narrative with a breathless excitement.However, his writing style is irksome. He has an infuriating habit of asking the reader rhetorical questions; his characterisation is often cartoonish; and he indulges in pop psychology. Worst of all, he often sacrifices considered analysis for quirky anecdotes, leaving the reader with the impression that his assumptions can be somewhat cavalier.
Yet, despite its flaws, the sheer bravado of Zemurray’s tale and the enthusiasm with which it is recounted go some way towards redeeming the book. Those who can stomach the writing will find one of the great American stories unfolding before their eyes.
Josh Glancy is the ‘Sunday Times’ News Review digital editor