Strange fruit

Peter Chapman examines the rise of the banana
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  March 4, 2008


Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World | By Peter Chapman | Canongate | 250 pages | $24
Consider the banana: that ambassador of potassium, patron saint of portable snacks, fundamental unit of slapstick, euphemiser of dementia. But alongside its cultural ubiquity, marketable health benefits, and universally agreed-upon deliciousness, the banana is also the fruit that fueled the parceling of Central America into a series of “banana republics” — a term coined by O. Henry that has nothing to do with pleated chinos.

In Peter Chapman’s new exploration of United Fruit, the nefarious primordial multinational that owned the banana trade for close to a century, the banana goes beyond being just another piece of produce lodged on Carmen Miranda’s hat. For Chapman, the “process of globalization is United Fruit’s enclave writ large,” and the banana is a bright yellow symbol of gross greed and power.

Of course, that’s not all the banana symbolizes. Not for nothing did Amy Vanderbilt warn ladies to employ fork and knife when enjoying a banana rather than take it straight-on. An advertisement for Chiquita bananas from the late ’50s blushingly admits to the company’s having approved the occasional banana that measures a “smidgen” under the acceptable “eight inches along the outer curve” — but only because the Chiquita “inspectors have hearts too.” And just imagine the odd, not-so-subconscious discomfort any reader — or reviewer — named Michael might experience upon reading that, prior to the domination of the Cavendish variety, the fat, nine-inch “Big Mike” was the standard.

It’s difficult when reading Chapman’s comprehensive if somewhat hurried history not to chuckle at phrases like “banana breakthrough,” or over the disappointment banana/railroad magnate Minor Keith felt at another firm’s inability to “handle his bananas” properly. And for all the greedy braggadocio unleashed by United Fruit upon the ill-prepared nations of Central America (and beyond), a confidently upturned banana is as apt an icon for unchecked corporate imperialism as any.

Chapman charts the progress of banana-republicanism from the early cultivation of crops in Costa Rica to the arrival of the first full shipment of “Jamaican Yellows” at Long Wharf in 1871 to the formation of United Fruit in 1899, and through the subsequent coups, machinations, and experimental capitalism that traumatized the lands and populations of Central America and ultimately led to United Fruit’s messy collapse — shortly after its last head, Eli Black, dove from the 44th floor of the Pan-American building on Park Avenue in 1975. As opening scenes go, Chapman’s detail of Black’s dive does well to draw you in, but Bananas suffers from a streak of drab seriousness and ends up being a bit bland — not unlike the “Big Mike.” It’s a careful and detailed study, but its cast of characters is seldom given any dimension — the story has the feel of a diorama. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s epic-specific investigations into salt and cod won’t find the same engagingly obsessive gusto at work here. And Chapman’s continual references to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (wherein a fictional “banana zone” named Macondo awaits windblown doom) might have you wishing for more music in the prose.

As a history of corporate fervor gone haywire, Bananas is a satisfying and revealing read. Dan Koeppel’s recent Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World deals more intimately with the banana’s cultural impact and pending genetic crisis and may provide a bit more entertainment. Barring that, there’s always “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”

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