Jean-Baptiste Del Amo - Brutal, violent, raw, harrowing. Here, the smell of manure, blood, piss and viscera permeates every chapter; madness, sex, alcohol and death ooze out of every page. This is a novel of epic scope and equally epic ambition, and it is exhilarating and frightening to read
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, Animalia, Trans. by Frank Wynne, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019.
Animalia retraces the history of a modest peasant family through the twentieth century as they develop their small plot of land into an intensive pig farm. In an environment dominated by the omnipresence of animals, five generations endure the cataclysm of war, economic disasters, and the emergence of a brutal industrialism reflecting an ancestral tendency to violence. Only the enchanted realm of childhood―that of Eleonore, the matriarch, and that of Jerome, the last in the lineage―and the innate freedom of the animals offer any respite from the visible barbarity of humanity. Written in shifting prose that reflects the passage of time, with shades of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Cormac McCarthy, Animalia is a powerful novel about man's desire to conquer nature and the transmission of violence from one generation to the next.
‘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. ... The first half, especially, is full of those dense sprawling sentences, gnarly with obscure words (eclose, muliebral, commensal, ataraxic). This gives the prose an eerie, otherworldly texture. The strangeness of the words, used with precision and scientific exactitude (“lucifugous insects emerge from the mound of earth”), slows your reading down, immersing you more in the scene on the page, and those scenes are so vividly imagined and conveyed — the woman miscarrying in the pigsty, the drunken priest and his attendants slogging up to the farm at night in thunderous rain, the old mother’s body being drawn from the well…’— David Mills, The Sunday Times
‘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. Amid the hills, vales and oak woods of Gers in south-western France, the same family dwells over four generations in a gloomy farmhouse. The plot pivots on two periods: the years before and during the Great War, and the early 1980s. ... The writing ... 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.’
— Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times
‘Animalia is stupendously good. This is a novel of epic scope and equally epic ambition, and it is exhilarating and frightening to read. Every page blazes with incandescent prose. After reading Animalia it might be a while before I can return to reading a contemporary novel, I suspect everything will seem tepid and timid in comparison. Del Amo has thrown down a gauntlet: be bold, be daring, be rigorous, be a poet. A stunning book.’— Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap
‘Animalia is a book about sex and violence, but it has unusual sobriety, and a story with a deep pull. The way it senses the natural world, in seed, vein, hair, grain, pore, bud, fluid, is like nothing I’ve read.’— Daisy Hildyard, author of The Second Body
‘Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s talent is impressive, his writing bountiful and explicit, sinuous and sharp, sensual and surgical.’— Bernard Pivot, Le Journal du Dimanche
‘Reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner.’— Patrick Grainville, Le Figaro
‘Brutal, violent, raw, harrowing. Here, the smell of manure, blood, piss and viscera permeates every chapter; madness, sex, alcohol and death ooze out of every page.’— Thierry Gandillat, Les Echos
‘A tour de force.’— Eric Naulleau, Le Point
‘An epic book on family and the savagery of humanity. An astonishing novel.’— Baptiste Liger, L’Express
‘Radical and brutal to the point of unease.’— Michel Abescat, Télérama
One of the greatest new novels i’ve read in forever; somewhere akin w Revaz’s With the Animals and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. - Blake Butler
Animalia is an evocative and insightful tale of an agricultural family in rural France. The story is told over several generations and the novel has something to say about humanity and our relationship to the changing world around us. Revealing as much about the way we are rooted in our past, our familiarities as guided by/influencing change. Deeply perceptive and sharp as a razor, this novel will get under your skin.
Caveat emptor: Reading this extraordinary novel might leave you feeling like you’ve been trampled under the hooves of a rampant parcel of pigs and ground into the mud and shit of their pen. Animalia is a truly visceral reading experience, this is a novel alive with the sounds and smells of the farm, and the intimate and intricate symbiosis of human and animal rural life. As Del Amo draws the reader into the story the immersion in descriptive detail, there is little dialogue, reveals characters and attitudes and it makes the contrasts between generations, times etc. all the more vivid. The contrast between our lives (readers’ lives, assuming not many of us are pig farmers), the harsh rural existence of a century ago and the dying industry of just forty years ago are vast and gaping, the similarities striking. Del Amo explores the contrast between the pre-World War One generation and the family of the 1980s, but also the gaps between the generations during each era (the void between parents and children). This is a tale of changing times, of changing attitudes, of a changing world but it is also a tale of comparisons; work, death, grief, coupling. The more we seek to distinguish ourselves from the animals the more obvious some of the similarities are between us; dress them up but the basic instincts and rudimentary elements of life are common; eating, sleeping, copulating. Equally we see the similarities between the generations, the binding factors, the weight of expectation and responsibility.
This is a family saga told in four parts spanning eighty years. This Filthy Earth (1898-1914) opens on a pig farm that is essentially the same as it has been for generations. In the evening the father sits on the same bench as his father, watching his wife, the genetrix, and feeling satisfied with the consistency and conformity of his existence. Yet he is ill, dying, worked to death in grinding poverty. The family had a small vineyard at one time but the phylloxera put an end to that. The genetrix is a woman of the soil, an earthy character, happy to squat anywhere on the farm and urinate just as the animals do. She believes in God, she is strict, sex is for procreation not enjoyment, drink leads to excess and immorality she abhors it, and once a year she makes the pilgrimage to Cahuzac. After two miscarriages, one that happens in a barn next to a brooding sow, a stark, if not shocking demonstration of moving on, Éléonore is born:
“It’s a girl,” she says.
He nods and replies:
“I’ll go feed the animals,” then goes out into the darkness to piss.
The genetrix fears for her husband:
“This wretched peasant farmer who is working himself to death or hastening his end, as though eager to be done with it, but only after the harvest, after the sowing, after the labouring, after…” The genetrix shrugs and sighs.
“She sometimes says that soon they will be the only people left on this hostile, implacable land, tilling the intractable earth that will one day be the death of them.”
For six-year-old Éléonore life means looking after the animals and attending school – boredom. Marcel, the cousin, is brought in to help on the farm….
What follows is a story of the farm and the family; war (Marcel is scarred physically and mentally – PTSD), emergence of clinical/farm technology, disease and death, and heredity.
Change cannot always be embraced, sometimes it crushes. By 1981 the farm is heading for disaster, the personal lives mirror the impending doom. The focus of the novel shifts from the farm as central focus of the characters’ lives to their personal concerns. Animalia reveals the unforgiving force of nature. There is nothing romantic here, this is harsh and brutal and, yet, at times the prose is beautiful. The excellent translation by Frank Wynne captures the blunt visceral lyrical prose. - Paul Burke
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, born in 1981, is one of France’s most exciting and ambitious young writers. Animalia, his fourth novel, all published by Gallimard, is his first to appear in English.