The theme of displacement is a common one in world literature, but I’m pretty sure I have never read a novel that is narrated by a gorilla. The opening sections of award winning Flemish writer Peter Verhelst’s, eleventh novel, “The Man I Became” tells the tale, in a first person narration, of a gorilla being captured, taken from his home and put onto a ship. The parallels to captured slaves, to refugees fleeing their homelands could not be more obvious:
We sailed into the New World at night. The ship docked. We heard knocking. Only when the enormous lights turned on did we see hundreds of people behind the glass walls. Their mouths opened and closed, but we couldn’t hear what they were shouting. Or were they laughing? Why were they waving? Were they angry? We couldn’t hear them through the thick glass, we could only hear their hands slapping the glass. Some of us hunched down, trying to make ourselves invisible. Flashes of light on all sides. And among all those red faces, all those gaping mouths, I saw – and will remember forever – the face of a girl. She looked straight into my eyes, and hers were gleaming. And on her lips I saw the sweetest, quietest, most delicate smile.
Whilst not your everyday narration, the story told by a gorilla, the language, style and themes capture you straight from the opening page;
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? Perhaps, after finishing the story, the reader, like me, will witness the way the evening sun can sink through a woman. The glow on the face of a woman that allows us to see the sun long after it has set – I come from a family who value things like that. Stay sitting where you are a little longer to wait for the stars, which will appear like embers years after the fire has gone out. That too is a miracle.
However, this is not simply the tale of a gorilla captured, sent to the “New World”, as our narrator is taught how to chat, how to act human, use cutlery, shave, wear suits and after “rehabilitation” he is required to pass the ultimate test of his assimilation by attending a cocktail party. To simply draw parallels to a world currently struggling with the Syrian refugee crisis, or to align the story with tales of people fleeing Eastern Europe, or Africa, then having to readjust to their new surroundings in a different environment with a different culture a different set of basic rules, would be to miss some of the subtler nuances and observations of daily Western life.
We spent that whole evening and night unlocking the secrets of our telephones, our memories growing with every second.
Our narrator has obviously progressed well, to the stage where he can write this novel, but the retrospective view of his life includes pertinent observations about humanity’s relationship with nature, about our obsessions with “humanising” or domesticating animals, viewed with an element of innocence as our narrator slowly becomes aware of human frailties.
As the protagonist progresses through his assimilation and training he becomes so adept at being human he becomes one of the actors in a “Dreamland” show, performed solely by animals, about the history of civilisation. The commercial success of Dreamland based on tourists coming to view giraffes, lions, monkeys, gorillas, all performing in a spectacular light show, about the history of humanity. Again the parallels to shows by circuses or by SeaWorld are startling, and to have this narrated to us in the voice of one of the animal performers could be blasé, however in this case it is pulled off with masterful aplomb.
Also containing technological references, not just our reliance on telephones as the quote above shows, nor our decline in memory as these tools replace our needs, but also to advances such as the internet, the anonymous online behaviours, are subtly planted throughout.
Being part of Peirene Press’ “Fairy Tale Series”, the first of three books under that heading for 2016, I feel this is a fair description, containing elements of class struggles, justice, judgement, growth and development this tale, although short, is a wonderful observation on numerous topical subjects.
Written in simple, sharp, detached language, it is almost factual in presentation, containing glimmers of mystery and corruption (what would an expose on human frailties or culture be without corruption?), the language reflects what a taught gorilla may use when writing his memoirs. Containing the detached innocence an animal may feel, by not understanding the complexities of human corruption, the pursuit of the almighty dollar and the exploitation required for that end, this is both a revelation and depressing. Holding a mirror up to our society and having the view not being all that pretty is a wonderful expose.
Peirene Press books all contain the quote from the TLS, “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and this latest release fits that bill nicely. Peirene also donate 50p from the sale of this book to Counterpoint Arts, a charity that promotes the creative arts by and about refugees and migrants in the UK. As the directors of Counterpoint Arts say on the inner sleeve; “We are living in a time of human displacement. We need bold and imaginative interventions to help us make sense of migration. And who better to do this than artists who are engaging with this issue.” A book that is wonderfully aligned with that statement, a book about displacement, a surreal fairy tale, but one that lingers and will make you think twice before you buy that next circus or SeaWorld ticket.