The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of Amer­i­ca’s Banana King

  • Review
By – March 7, 2012

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: poor immi­grant arrives on Amer­i­can shores, bat­tles the odds, and ulti­mate­ly builds a cor­po­rate empire. It may sound like anoth­er well-worn lit­er­ary cliché, but Rich Cohen’s picaresque of banana king­pin Sam Zemur­ray ably skirts any impulse to pigeon­hole his work as deriv­a­tive. The Fish That Ate the Whale sweeps the read­er into a rich ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry tableau, explor­ing a deep and con­flict­ed char­ac­ter in Zemur­ray. The expert explo­ration of such a col­or­ful char­ac­ter allows Cohen to con­struct a sprawl­ing nar­ra­tive with­out over­reach­ing. The writer doc­u­ments Zemurray’s trav­els from impov­er­ished New Orleans banana ped­dler, to Hon­duran polit­i­cal schemer, and ulti­mate­ly to his ascen­dance as chair­man of Unit­ed Fruit. Cohen weaves a well-researched biog­ra­phy of Zemur­ray, a detailed his­to­ry of the inter­na­tion­al banana trade, and a con­cise overview of late colo­nial Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, into one com­pelling story.

Beyond just telling Zemurray’s remark­able sto­ry, the author exam­ines the moral­i­ty of the protagonist’s actions. Zemur­ray attempts to mit­i­gate the fall­out from his med­dling in sev­er­al Cen­tral Amer­i­can nations through gen­er­ous anony­mous giv­ing, or tsedakah. Zemur­ray donat­ed most of his siz­able for­tune to Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty and the ear­ly Zion­ist move­ment. While his phil­an­thropic efforts should not be over­looked, it is appar­ent that the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of his gen­eros­i­ty were not the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions dev­as­tat­ed by his quest for end­less prof­its. In fact, it was only late in his life that Zemur­ray rec­og­nized the dam­age he caused in Latin Amer­i­ca as head of Unit­ed Fruit. Of this late real­iza­tion, Cohen writes, If he had ques­tioned the work­ings of this machine, he would have been a great man, but he was not a great man.” Read­ers will delight in the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er the moti­va­tions and ethics of such a com­pli­cat­ed real-life character.

Justin Petril­lo hails from Chevy Chase, MD. The city is not named for the actor, so stop ask­ing. He resides in Brook­lyn and spends time play­ing ten­nis, read­ing books by Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish authors, and scream­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins through the tele­vi­sion. He is a grad­u­ate of Emory University.

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