MIDWAY : Banana story

The banana has symbolised many different things in the past 100 years, as Peter Chapman shows in his book Jungle Capitalists: A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution. In a more innocent age its skin was the stuff of slapstick comedy, while its priapic shape was a source of titillation and sexual innuendo. To the rationing-weary European public of the post-war period the tropical fruit stood for life’s little luxuries and better times to come.

More recently, in the former communist bloc, it was nothing less than an icon for the west, while in the New World, particularly among the cluster of small states to the south of Mexico, its implications were far more sinister. The “banana republic” has become a byword for government corruption and repressive violence.

It is these darker areas of the banana’s past that are the core subject of Chapman’s book. He explains the origins of the oft-used expression by taking us on a tour of the now defunct United Fruit company, a buccaneering US outfit founded in the 19th century and largely responsible for the banana’s current worldwide popularity — it is the planet’s fourth most important food item — and its low price. Yet the fruit’s universal availability was predicated on United Fruit’s near-monopolistic control of production and ruthless exploitation of fresh markets. For many years the company’s nickname was El Pulpo, the Octopus, a reference to its insidious reach.

Chapman’s broad-brush approach to history makes a vigorous and entertaining narrative drive. The tone also seems well matched to the rollicking adventures of his central characters, many of them rags-to-riches anti-heroes whose exploits the author compares to the arch-merchant-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Chapman gives the book a contemporary resonance by suggesting that in studying the banana trade we can see the impact of multinationals.

Yet we are never really told how much better — or worse — the national life of the banana republics might have been had they never forged their relationships with the yellow fruit. None the less Chapman’s achievement is to make us realise what a long and complex moral journey even something as seemingly innocent as a banana has made to our fruit bowls.