‘The Man I Became’ by Peter Verhelst (Review)

IMG_5461Peirene Press are now in their seventh year of publications, and having read the majority of their offerings, I’m pretty confident in what I’ll find each time I pick up a new one.  A taut story with a focus on a small group of people; spiky relationships, usually involving women; a slight sense of claustrophobia, people desperate to break free of social (or literal) constraints…

…and then they go and publish a book narrated by a talking gorilla…

*****
Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became (translated by David Colmer, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a narrator looking back at his origins, recounting his abduction from a far-away land and an arduous journey across deserts and oceans which ends with his arrival in a new world.  A tale of woe many migrants (or slaves…) could tell, but the mere fact of his being able to articulate his experiences is what makes this one stand out.  As we later discover, our narrator is a gorilla, and he has been brought across the sea to work at Dreamland, a fantastic amusement park – once, that is, he has been domesticated and educated.

Initially, he is just one of many among his ‘family’, but it soon becomes clear that he is destined for great things.  He adapts to human society quickly and is chosen to help organise and coordinate the show at the heart of Dreamland, a mesmerising spectacle of evolution which has gone beyond the level we’ve reached today.  The more he learns, the more praise (and rewards) our friend receives, moving him closer towards the goal of being recognised as human.  However, you can’t completely tame the animal inside, and it will only take a reminder of his origins to make him question the importance of his new life.

If this all sounds bizarre, it is, a little – yes, it’s about a talking gorilla, and not just gorillas either.  We’re never quite sure of when and where this is all taking place, but this is a world where animals can be tamed and ‘upgraded’.  On their arrival in the ‘New World’, the animals are shaved, trained and taught to behave like people, all of which builds up to an excellent scene of a coming-out party.  The various families (i.e. species) meet each other in dinner jackets and dresses for polite conversation (while repressing the urge to eat each other) – My Fair Lady Gorilla, perhaps…

It’s certainly an amusing story at times.  Our narrator is smart and sardonic, and there’s a lot going on, yet it’s not all fun and games.  Before the new arrivals are permitted to start their work at Dreamland, they are forced to undergo a gruelling ‘education’, with hints of unethical treatment (and possible neutering…).  Everyone is eager to make it, though, having been shown at the very start an example of what happens to those who fail to adapt.  Later, on a trip to the coast, the result of failure is made even clearer:

‘This is where the candidates arrive,’ the human said.  ‘Many feel that they have been called, few are predestined.  Those who prove unsatisfactory are donated to the DMCC.’
We nodded.
‘What does DMCC mean, sir? asked the female human in a small voice, as if she was one of us.
‘The DMCC,’ said our human, is the Dreamland Maritime Cleaning Crew, in the hands of the Carcharodon carcharias family, also known as the Great White family.
p.44 (Peirene Press, 2016)

Cleaners – an interesting euphemism…

Most readers of The Man I Became will approach the text looking for allegories as it’s hard to read the book without thinking of both the slave trade and colonisation.  The animals here are being ‘civilised’ using the stick-and-carrot approach, with those who do well enough striving to be accepted by the people who brought them to their new home.  There’s also a strong sense of Heart of Darkness here (apt for a Belgian novelist); the narrator’s story is almost a mirror image of Kurtz’ journey into the heart of the African interior, and just like Conrad’s protagonist, Verhelst’s simian hero gradually becomes disillusioned by what he finds.

However, the book is also very much a reflection on the migrant experience.  Initially, the families stick together, but it doesn’t take long for their ties to loosen as they attempt to adapt to a new life.  There’s a dawning realisation of possible choices, ghettos or adaptation.  The narrator chooses the latter, only too happy to throw himself into his new life, his new shiny badges proof of his status:

I went down the fire escape.
‘What are you doing here?’ the security guard asked, one hand in the pocket where he kept the shock rod.
Calmly I pulled on my jacket to let him see my two gold Ds.  I looked at his other hand.  That was all it took.  I simply looked at the hand that was holding the cigarette.  The man threw his cigarette down on the floor and apologized.  I kept staring.  Ashamed, he picked up the butt.  I patted him on the back reassuringly.
(p.87)

At this point, it appears that all the hard work has been worth it – he has finally been accepted into a new ‘family’.

It’s only later that he reflects on what he’s given up in exchange for his comfortable life.  He’s too busy to see his ‘family’, and even when he does manage to catch up with one of his old friends, his increased status is a barrier between them.  Aside from occasional snatched moments of passion, he leads a fairly cold life, leading him to question whether the price he’s paying for his success is worth it.  A growing sense of solitude leaves him wanting to turn the clock back, desperate for a little warmth…

Quite apart from the fascinating content, part of the success of The Man I Became is down to the writing.  It features an excellent translation by Colmer which, like the story itself, is crisp and clear.  In a way, the narrator’s voice reminds me of colonial English, in places slightly over-formal and hyper-correct.  I’m not sure if this is deliberate or not (and I may be reading too much into this…), but you feel that our friend is choosing his words carefully, not quite able to speak naturally and without some strain.  What definitely does come through, though, is a sense of menace beneath the calm surface.  The voice is polite, but firm, with a hint of the violence to come…

No, The Man I Became is not all that similar to the usual Peirene fare, but it’s an excellent book, and perhaps one of my favourite Peirene titles for a while.  A thought-provoking book working on several levels, Verhelst’s novella gives us the voice of a ‘man’, of a person, wondering if he has made the right decisions:

Now that this story has been completed, I realize I didn’t write it seeking forgiveness – life itself forgave me long ago – but because the emotions belong to everyone: the sorrow, the longing, even the happiness.  And what is happiness anyway? (p.7)

When we find ourselves far from home, we must look for happiness where we can find it.  We all make choices – it’s up to us (like our hirsute friend) to be happy with the consequences…

4 thoughts on “‘The Man I Became’ by Peter Verhelst (Review)

  1. I recently won this in the PeiQuiz, but for some reason I’ve tended to wait until all three Peirene Press books are out in the last couple of years and then read them all. It does seem like they are now trying to include one which is more light-hearted /quirky.

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