This is an extraordinary book. A dark saga related in sprawling sentences, made denser still by obscure and difficult vocabulary, it is everything I usually hate in a novel. Instead, I was spellbound... A kind of savage reimagining of Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. By the latter part, something has obviously gone monstrously awry and it is not merely wrong but evil. This section is perhaps too obvious and heavy-handed in its condemnation of industrial agriculture, but the first half of this novel is a considerable achievement and worth reading for that alone.
This is a book about war, violence, sickness and cruelty, and about the relationship between men, women, animals and the natural world. Just about everything in Animalia is stained, spoiled, violated, dirty and unpleasant – pick a page, any page, any scene, any person, anything... There are occasional glimpses of hope – though they are almost always instantly snatched away... If at times the book seems to be drowning in its own despair, elsewhere the sentences soar with heavy wings, and so the reader becomes complicit, awakened to our own filthy needs and desires... Animalia is an important reminder that literature’s task is not necessarily to uplift, but to help us to attain a true understanding of our predicament.
Del Amo’s novel is a massive sensory experience; no detail is too small to let ferment. In certain respects, the village of Puy-Larroque stays unchanged from the 1900s to the Eighties; it steams with peat and semen and urine-soaked dirt. The farmyard is “fragrant with the smells of excrement, acrid smoke, metal and cooking”. A string of “sagging, stinking guts” are wrenched through the anus of a slaughtered pig. On the road into town, “cartwheels and hooves spatter faces with a foul sludge”.
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s writing positively reeks of pathos, and of rage. Yet for all the acrid pungency of its prose, Animalia pretty much tells an everyday story of country folk... Del Amo grafts family melodrama on to a visionary eco-polemic, depicting the foul piggery as “the cradle of their barbarism and that of the whole world”. We trot towards a backwoods apocalypse, with madness, fire and plague. Del Amo slaps on the trauma with a trowel... The writing, though, never loses its electric crackle of sumptuousness and savagery. Ever-resourceful, agile and ingenious, Wynne’s translation proves equal to every twist... Del Amo’s prose throws a bucket of slurry from some “unspeakable mire” over the conventions of pastoral fiction. Yet he has plentiful passages of heart-lifting loveliness, as when an August harvest prompts Marcel to feel nature as “an indissoluble great whole”. From first to last, “the cruelty of men” emits its rancid stench. Thankfully, Del Amo lets us sniff the sweeter scents of tenderness and beauty too.
Throughout the novel, characters have found release in close observations of nature and this is especially the case with Jérôme who wanders freely, pushing past the constraining boundaries of the farm. In the midst of remarkable writing which is attentive to every movement, every sound and every silence – in a beautifully detailed translation by Frank Wynne – we can join Jérôme as he lies in a graveyard and “allows the minutes and the hours to wash over him, sometimes half-opening his eyes to watch the confused ballet of the swallows, the treetops of the cypresses swaying gently in the breeze, the cones falling, bouncing and skittering over the steps”