The latest book from Peirene Press is narrated by a gorilla. That’s no secret: it’s an explicit warning given in the blurb. Yet the narrator doesn’t remain a gorilla. The clue is in the title: in The Man I Became, the eleventh novel by Belgian Flemish author Peter Verhelst (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), various species are captured and forcibly humanized. Our narrator – whose name we never know – remembers his happy life in Africa:
We caught termites by pushing long twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds and then licking the twigs clean. … We hung from branches one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our bliss was never going to end.
But soon his fellows start disappearing, and eventually the riders come for him too. He’s captured and marched across the desert to the sea to be shipped to the New World. The gorillas’ training begins soon after they arrive.
We learned to walk upright. ‘Faster! Taller!’ said the human. … Then we learned how to shave. … We learned a new language word by word. We learned to eat from a bowl and then with knife and fork. … We learned to powder our skin to make it lighter.
At this point I started to get a bit nervous about the book’s racial connotations. Especially as the gorillas-in-transition become sexual objects, I wondered what Verhelst could be attempting to say about the notions of the noble savage and the purification of the race.
The creatures’ progress is carefully documented. They carry phones that function as identification as well as an external memory. The art of conversation is something they practice at cocktail parties, where the narrator learns that he and his kind are not the only ones; giraffes, buffalo, leopards, parrots, lions and bonobos have all been subjected to the same experiment. With all of them together in the same room, the animals have to suppress their natural fear reactions.
The narrator becomes an animal trainer for the evolution-in-action show at Dreamland, an amusement park with roller coasters and fast food. There are different classes of animals, you see; some remain animals and do menial duties, while a chosen few are transformed into humans. He halfheartedly looks for his brother and has a brief affair with Emily. When a violent incident leaves several dead and the narrator’s human is caught acquiring animals through the black market, Dreamland’s very existence is threatened. (If you know the history of the real Dreamland, a longtime Coney Island attraction, you may have an inkling.)
This novella is scarcely 120 pages. Short books can be wonderful, but that’s not the case if there’s no space to craft a believable plot. The pace is so quick here that there’s no chance to bed into scenes and settings, and the narrator is never entirely convincing – whether as a gorilla, a man or something in between. Too much of the book feels dreamlike and fragmentary.
Meanwhile, the ideology bothered me. Is this simply a social satire à la Animal Farm, to which it’s compared in the prefatory material? A sort of ‘some animals are more equal than others’ message? If so, then, well, that’s been done before. Nor is there any shortage of books mocking caste systems and eugenic experimentation. Apart from a handful of memorable lines, the prose is quite simplistic, and the overall storyline doesn’t feel original.
Verhelst has written that he was inspired by three things: a troop of cheeky baboons encountered in South Africa, the history of the early-twentieth-century Dreamland, and news of the completed human genome project. “What is a human? Is it a creature that can smile while walking on two legs? A creature with a signature and a mobile phone?” he asks. These are interesting questions, certainly, but I felt they were not explored with particular depth or panache here.
The Man I Became was my third Peirene book, after The Looking-Glass Sisters. This one was a disappointment, but I will not let that deter me from trying more, including the other two in the “Fairy Tale series: End of Innocence”: Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake.
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.