Published by Peirene Press
Publication date – 9 February 2016
Source – review copy
Translated by David Colmer
“Huxley’s Brave New World meets Orwell’s Animal Farm.
An impressively entertaining tale about the frailty of our civilization by the leading Flemish writer Peter Verhelst, now for the first time in English.
Warning: this story is narrated by a gorilla. He is plucked from the jungle. He learns to chat and passes the ultimate test: a cocktail party. Eventually he is moved to an amusement park, where he acts in a show about the history of civilization. But as the gorilla becomes increasingly aware of human weaknesses, he must choose between his instincts and his training, between principles and self-preservation.”
I received a copy of this book from the publishers and this is my honest opinion of the book.
This is heart-wrenching and anger inducing from its opening pages. The family of gorillas, happy in their mountain home are dragged violently from all they have known. They are taken overseas to a facility that teaches them how to be human. They learn to walk upright without using their hands to balance. They are taught to talk, to wash and shave and eat and drink like a human. They are tested by attending a cocktail party where they have to mingle with other guests. Guests who, in a previous existence, it would have been more instinctive to flee from than drink with. Our narrator is then moved to Dreamland, an amusement park of epic proportions. He is part of the show, there to entertain the human masses who come to wonder at the abilities of these ‘nearly’ humans.
There is, however, nothing cartoonish or sweet about the anthropomorphism of the animals in this book. I read it with a sense of nagging sorrow and anger. Yes it is an exaggerated tale of the whims and follies of the human ego but it has the underlying message of the unconscionable actions of some humans to control everything else that shares the planet with us.
There is of course a danger to imposing our human traits on other animals. We know that animals can feel fear so it is easy to imagine that other species can love, can feel anger, regret and other human emotions. There is also the possibility of passing on the human ability to destroy, both ourselves and the world around us. As this tale shows.
There is little more I can say about the plot of this story without giving it away; at 120 pages you may think it could be lacking on story. It is not. Though it may be short on word count, the words that are used are used to great effect.
The translation is well done. It may sound a tad unfair to the translator but I believe that a good translation is one that is not obvious. If it feels like the words have come from the author then in my opinion the translator has done their job well. This was the case with this book.
The Man I Became is published under Peirene’s Fairy Tale theme. There is indeed a fairy tale like quality to this novella, but with a darker Grimm like edge to it. Peirene only publish books that are less than 200 pages long and that can be read in less than 2 hours. 2 hours that won’t be wasted.
This is a thought-provoking tale of the dangers of the human ego and the desire to control everything we can, and of the frailty that can lead to. Well worth a read.