As ANIMALIA by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo promises by its title, it is, on the highest level, about animals – specifically, about the complicated and often brutal and indifferent historical treatment of animals by farmers. But it’s also about people, an introspection about the similarities and differences between humans and those same animals. It provides an intimate look at a family’s history of struggle, first, as subsistence farmers during WWI in France, and later as commercial farmers in the 1980s.
I have to admit this book took me a long time to read … mostly because the emotions and the pain (human and animal) evoked on the pages is so visceral. The writing is lush and so transporting, I was able to see, feel, smell, touch, and taste the French countryside, the pig barns.
ANIMALIA, a French translation (it won a great number of literary prizes), begs the question of whether emotional suffering can be passed from generation to generation. And whether attitudes and perceptions about human-animal existence are learned. Indeed, a handful of characters show compassion and deep respect toward nature and the animal kingdom despite the actions of their elders. While I wish the portrayals of callousness weren’t so accurately mirrored by my own experience, I am afraid they are. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and I witnessed the same mistreatment of and apathy toward cattle, barnyard kittens, dogs, pigs and birds (I think I was permanently scarred by one event, as a four-year old!).
This novel made me consider a lot of things – whether there is some pervading European mindset about our place in the animal kingdom that gets passed down (I should note that this book could have been written about American farming as well— similar or worse commercial practices here, and many of us are of European descent, having been raised on similar edicts). Conversely, it seems that most Native cultures seem to revere nature and animals.
That said, I also pondered the plight of the pain-filled human characters; I hurt for them. The characterization is phenomenal. I recommend this book to anyone who loves gorgeous prose, wants to be challenged by a literary work that is theme- and character-centric, and open ended. If you enjoy a writing style where you have to make your own revelations – vs. an author hand feeding facts – this is the book for you. Things are never overtly stated, often blurred to keep you off balance in the same way the characters live their lives. In the second half the book, reading is like solving a puzzle to determine who is related to whom, and what the family dynamics are, unspooling slowly. A great deal of “show” vs. “tell.” And of course, this book should be noted for the magical prose:
A fox slinks between roots and brambles, its chops red with the spittle-slick hare it is gripping in its jaws. It stops, sniffs the east wind. Its eyes are two bronze spheres. Fur trembles on its flanks, and it disappears beneath a blackened stump.
This is how Henri brought up the sons, weighing their character and their masculinity by their capacity to endure the suffering of animals, so that such things now provoke nothing in Joel, except perhaps indifference, a numbness that has gradually extended to everything else, an acid steadily eroding his nerve endings.
The path dips and runs along the fields of soft wheat. Fieldmice scamper as he walks, while the dew pearls on the stalks of the plants, on the silvered fur of rodents and on Jerome’s skin. The silent forms of bats flit to and fro before his face. In a few months, glow-worms will glisten in the hedgerows, lighting up small patches of darkness.
In the end, ANIMALIA asks “How different are the characters from the pigs they’ve commoditized and trapped behind tight bars?”
(A version of Melissa Crytzer Fry’s review of ANIMALIA by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo was published at GoodReads on Apr 20, 2020. It is reposted here with the permission of the reviewer.)