‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (Review)

While I was able to get through several potential inclusions in the weeks leading up to the Man Booker International Prize longlist announcement (none of which actually made the cut), there was one eligible book I didn’t manage to read in time.  Thinking it was a fair chance of being longlisted, I left it for later – of course, this one didn’t make it either…  However, once I finally managed to plough my way through my shadow judging reading, I was able to devote some time to what could have been Fitzcarraldo Editions’ third book on the longlist.  So, was this one hard done by, or were the judges right to ignore it?  There’s only one way to find out 🙂

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (translated by Frank Wynne, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins on a remote farm in Gascony towards the start of the twentieth century, where a seriously ill farmer and his wife are attempting to eke a living out of the land.  Their daughter, Éléonore, has to grow up quickly in this harsh environment, with the only joy in her life the occasional cuddle from her dad and the company of her cousin, Marcel, who has come to carry out the work the farmer can no longer do.  Over the course of Éléonore’s formative years, we see time passing both in the countryside and in the wider world, and by the time we leave the farm, life is very different for those living there, with old age and the war both taking their toll.

However, that isn’t the end of the story – in fact, we’re only half-way there.  The second half of the novel takes us forward to 1981, with Éléonore now the matriarch of a family running a thriving pig farm.  It looks as if the years have brought nothing but success, yet on closer examination, things are not as they seem.  Éléonore’s son, Henri, has allowed his ambition to run away with him, and the old farmhouse isn’t the only thing showing cracks.  There’s trouble looming in the piggery, and even the family itself appears to be on the verge of imploding – this really could be the end of the line.

Animalia is an absorbing read consisting of two distinct stories of then and now, connected by the problems the characters face.  As well as being a family saga, the novel highlights the sheer struggle for existence of the start of the twentieth century and the battle against bureaucracy and infection in the 1980s, with both halves proving to be fairly confronting.  In the early sections, the writer shows the grim reality of farm life in uncomfortable detail, delighting in descriptions of filth, blood, pig semen and the ever-present smells:

Faced with the wife’s determined silence, he finally decides to step inside, trailing his own stench and the stench of the animals as far as the box-bed, and pulls the door open.  Sitting on the edge of the mattress, or leaning against the carved wood, he unbuttons his rancid shirt between fits of coughing.
p.13 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019)

As you can see, it’s a hard life, but in the harsh world of the farm, there’s no room for misplaced sympathy.  The farmer’s wife proves this in breathtaking fashion, by snapping a piglet’s neck and hunting down ‘useless’ kittens and puppies.  Yet there’s surprisingly little difference between humans and animals in this cruel world, and her first still-born child is disposed of in a very similar fashion…

The second of the four sections moves the action on to World War One, where we are witness to the carnage and destruction of both people and animals.  While the suffering of the young men is bad enough (both of those that fall and the crippled shells who manage to make it back home), the animals are also sent to the front, and their view of life from the army abattoir is a sobering one:

Loaded according to a fixed schedule, every day they transport the two thousand kilos of meat that feed an infantry regiment.  The pace of the slaughter is such that none of the men has seen its like before, not even those who have worked for abattoirs in the cities.  The two cows, the calf and the sows are led to the butchery tents, hog-tied or restrained by wooden planks, stunned, stuck, and sometimes trepanned before being bled, dismembered and butchered. (p.158)

With this slaughter echoing what’s happening on the battle-fields not too far way, once again the writer appears to be suggesting that animals and humans are more similar than we’d like to think, mere lumps of meat waiting to be torn to pieces.

The two stories are set in very different times, and the modern piggery, with its advanced technology, seems light years away from the farm we saw at the start of the novel, yet the concerns of the owners are very similar beneath the surface.  The farmers are bound to their farm by their job, more akin to a vocation, involving them in a never-ending battle against nature and disease.  The problem for Henri and his sons is that each advance, while solving some of their problems, brings new issues in its wake.  While the pigs are now bred for quick lean meat, leading to more money more quickly, this genetic manipulation means the animals are prone to infections; as a result, the farmers are constantly on guard against the threat of sickness and disaster (which, in practice, leads to never-ending shifts of shit shovelling…)

The unwanted implications of genetic simplification aren’t limited to the pigs, either.  There’s a sense that with the marriage of the cousins many decades earlier, inbreeding has harmed the humans just as much.  Each of Éléonore’s descendants has their own cross to bear (including serious illness, depression and alcoholism), but much of the focus of the second part of Animalia is on Jérôme, her mute great-grandson, a boy unlikely to be carrying on the family tradition.  There are several parallels here with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, another story about the decline of a family: the disastrous consequences of overeaching in business (Henri’s obsession with an ever-growing piggery); outsiders not buying into the family business (the sons’ wives); and, just like Hanno Buddenbrook, Jérôme is the sensitive boy representing the end of the family line.  If the start of the book shows us Éléonore’s father’s attempts to build the family’s fortunes, the final pages see it all collapse spectacularly.

For many readers, though, the main interest in Animalia will come not from the action but from how Del Amo tells it.  His compelling story is often related through high-blown, low-frequency vocabulary, and if you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at the following list, taken just from the first of the four sections: genetrix, pyx, eclose, tintinnabulation, hieratic, parturient, zygomatic, farandoles, muliebral, lucifugous, telluric, anura.  If you know what all those mean without recourse to a dictionary, you’re obviously better-read than I am…  I was recently lucky enough to chat to the translator about the book, and he confirmed that the original is just as elaborate and ornate (if not more so).  Despite these lexical barriers, though, the story is enthralling, particularly in the first half, and the enormous amount of descriptive detail (and the lack of niceties) places the reader firmly in the fields with the characters, with the stench of pig shit all around.

However, there are some issues with Animalia, partly arising from its split nature.  The second half of the book has a rather different focus from the first, concentrating more on the folly and ethical crimes of pig-farming, and as important as that is, it can come across as a little preachy, meaning the book loses the charm of the absorbing first half (with its descriptions of village life and the effect of WWI on the community).

The leap of decades also takes away much of the story, with the reader left to fill in the gaps of the missing years.  Here, our comparison with Buddenbrooks shows a very different structure, with Mann’s book walking us through the various generations and allowing us to see the fall coming, including the pride that goes before it.  Del Amo has decided to leave that all out, and I’m not convinced this was a great idea.  Above all, the second half of the book suffers greatly from the virtual disappearance of Éléonore.  She’s very much at the heart of the first story, but while she’s still alive in 1981, she’s a peripheral figure, with Animalia now morphing into the story of her son and grandsons.  Having accompanied her up to the prime of her life, the reader may well be disappointed to miss out on the rest of it.

Animalia, then, is far from perfect, yet that’s unsurprising for such an ambitious work, and even if the second half does pale in comparison with the first, overall, it’s still a compelling novel.  It can be seen as a story of the futility of our struggles against time, and of the fragile nature of our bodies:

Julie-Marie contemplates the shards of nail parings in her hand and they suddenly seem extremely precious, poignant in their banality, then, a moment later, repellent for what they actually are: the funereal debris of a body that bows, capitulates in the face of illness, allows itself to be swept away by the wave and is swallowed, slowly and inexorably, into those depths their voices can no longer reach. (p.239)

Whether it takes us past cemeteries with bones poking out of the ground, or places us in a line of cows walking slowly to their slaughter, Del Amo’s work is a grim reminder of our mortality, and how little we can actually do to stave off the inevitable approach of failure and death.

4 thoughts on “‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (Review)

  1. “So, was this one hard done by, or were the judges right to ignore it? There’s only one way to find out”

    So what’s the overall verdict? For me it should have been comfortably on the shortlist let alone longlist.


    1. Paul – I’ll definitely go with the longlist, not so sure about the shortlist (although here I’m talking about my own personal shortlist, not the one the official judges came up with). The first half is excellent, the last quarter is probably a little weaker – still an excellent read, though.


      1. For me the language elevates it to personal shortlist material. Would have been fighting with one of the Solstad’s, Faculty of Dreams (and possibly Knausi on lifetime achievement grounds) for the Paul Booker International this year, with Now Now Louison and the Governesses just edging Shape of the Ruins off the shortlist,


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