Book I’ve Been Absorbed By – The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen. This is the biography of Samuel Zemurray, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1891. When he arrived in America with his Aunt, he was 14 years old. His purpose? To gain enough money to pay for the passage of his siblings to America. To this end, he worked every job he could, tried every trade. He worked as a carpenter’s assistant, as a delivery boy, house cleaner, he worked in his uncle’s general store, and even as a travelling merchant. Zemurray seems to have worked every job under the sun. He wasn’t too good for anything, but always took the time to take his bearings. What were the best jobs? Who made the most money? How did people in high roles arrive at them? Where was the greatest reward? This drive fuelled a distinct creativity in Zemurray, to see opportunity before anyone else, and the will to act upon it.
Sam stumbled upon the banana in 1895. At the time, the exotic fruit was exceedingly rare in the United States, but as legend has it, he instantly saw potential. He decided to get involved in the trade. He used all his savings to buy ripe bananas, which were considered trash by the established banana companies at the time. Sam believed that there was a market for them, that people would enjoy them just as much if he could sell them quick enough. Better yet, the large corporations that already existed, that already imported these bananas, were providing him with his product almost for free. Nearly overnight, the boy became a success. By the age of 21, in 1898, Sam had saved 100,000$, an enormous sum at the time (perhaps up to three million dollars today). In time he would start his own Banana company, he would import his own fruit, he would purchase land in Central America to grow this fruit! Along the way, he worked every job in the industry. There was nothing he did not know about bananas, from selling fruit out of a box on the side of a road, to clearing jungle with a machete with the banana cowboys.
Zemurray would grow and overcome everything that stood in his way, for better or worse. Zemurray, and the companies he is associated with, are not fondly remembered in Central Amermica. He overthrew more than one democratically elected government in his lifetime, and he did it while spitting in the face of the American government. Sam the Banana-Man, as he was called throughout his life, really wanted to sell bananas, and he wouldn’t let a government charge him taxes if he could help it.
A controversial figure, Sam Zemurray was a villain, but he also did good. He funded schools, hospitals, created school programs specialized in agriculture, and built many hospitals, schools and infrastructure in Central America as well, though I’m certain the locals don’t feel like it made up for the turmoil he imposed upon their nations for his own benefit. Nevertheless, Sam the Banana-Man had an interesting part to play in how the world came to be the way it is.
This is not like other biographies I’ve read. While I was initially apprehensive about Cohen’s style of writing, I must say that it was very engaging for a biography, which are so often dull. He alternates between three ways of telling a story. He gives you his personal perspective on things, saying I met x and he told me, or I think y because I read so and so. He gives you the academic, third person omniscient perspective, describing the state of the world, and the irony we can draw from hindsight. And finally, he even sprinkles in dramatized sequences, where we follow our characters as though we were in a movie. It’s not all perfect though. Frankly, I feel like I got to be a fly on the wall in many key moments in Zemurray’s life, but I don’t feel like I ever got into his head. The book observes Zemurray, it does not understand him. Perhaps Zemurray did not leave Cohen much in terms of personal writings to work from, but either way, I enjoyed what I read. I also liked that Cohen took the time to really dive deep into the history of the banana trade, of the banana itself. I feel like I know so much I didn’t know I wanted to know about this fruit that I’ve been eating since I’m a child. I also recognize that I wouldn’t have considered it a staple of my diet were it not for Zemurray and his predecessors, because the average human, just 120 years ago, would not have known what a banana was if he saw one.