A new Peirene! The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst (tr. David Colmer)

As a rule I love Peirene Press, but I haven’t actually read one of their books for a while. So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of book no. 19, The Man I Became, which is part of the new ‘Fairy Tale’ series. It’s quite an odd one, given that it is narrated in the first person by a gorilla. It gets odder still as you read on, but better with it.

my review copy - another gorgeous Peirene cover!
my review copy – another gorgeous Peirene cover!

Our narrator doesn’t have a name – in fact only one person in the whole thing does, and that name is only revealed at the end. Our narrator is plucked from his life in the jungle and brought, via a very unpleasant journey, to the New World (which might literally be America, but that isn’t made explicit). He, along with a group of other male gorillas, is taught to be a ‘gentleman’, though they are forced rather than taught. They know that if they do not comply they will either be beaten or will just disappear.

There is a man, a human, put in charge of them. He teaches them how to dress, how to stand, how to smile, how to converse; their first test is a cocktail party, at which they meet their female counterparts (some of whom they recognise from ‘before’) as well as range of other animals who have been taught to act like humans. There are other monkeys, bonobos, which makes sense. But then there are big cats, buffalos, and giraffes. The latter somehow seem the most grotesque of all, as they, like all the others, have been taught to walk on only their hind legs.

Though this is very surreal, it is still upsetting. The animals are dominated and forced to change, to be something they are not, and the whole thing is very unsettling.

The animals inhabit some kind of amusement park called Dreamland. People come to gawk at them, and watch a show performed by animals that are trained, but do not act as humans. This show is about evolution, and the history of the world, and just sounds bizarre. Our narrator works his way up to being a trainer for the animals in the show, and is put in charge of the lion. It is still a lion, albeit a very intelligent one. It acts like a pet cat with him, letting him rub its belly; but they both know the lion could easily kill the gorilla. Here one animal is dominant because they are emulating a human, but the innate power is still a balancing act. We consider what it means to be an animal, and what it means to be a human.

Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel describes this book as a fable, and I think that’s how it must be taken. It is hard to take it literally. Throughout the book you are confronted with deep immorality and cruelty, and the absolute disregard for the true nature of anyone or anything. Every animal is something to be moulded, something to be exploited. There is a terrible moment when our narrator and his fellow gorillas first arrive at Dreamland, and they are introduced to the human who takes charge of them, and they have been shaved and washed. He says they must become gentleman and if they don’t succeed they will become… and he points to a creature on the floor, in the corner. It is a gorilla, still with all its hair, as they used to look, but now it is “a thing”. It looks like them, but “before the shave but then trampled down, miserable, broken.” This creature is not seen again. It is a truly disturbing moment.

The book contains a strange mixture of mundanity and the unimaginable. Nothing is as it should be, and no one is perhaps who they once were. The whole message, I think, is that you can never forget who you are or who you used to be – but that doesn’t mean that you can go back. The fact that you cannot forget who you were means you also cannot forget who you are now, and that must be accepted, however hard it may be. This novel is also a careful examination of power, and how it can be enacted, and used to change and control. It is terrifying, and reminds us that as humans we are sometimes careless with power. We know the damage it can do, and this odd little fable reminds us of that, in a surreal but nonetheless heartbreaking way.

*

Originally published in 2013 as Geschiedenis von een berg by Prometheus (Amsterdam). Published in English by Peirene Press in February 2016. My thanks to Peirene for the review copy.

Purchase from Foyles here.

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