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
Les Liquides Imaginaires, founded in France in 2012, might be the world’s most literary perfume brand. It is certainly among the most eccentric. To its founder, Philippe Di Méo, its aim is no less than to restore fragrance to its origins in mythology and ritual; to move beyond mere cosmetics and endow perfume with a ‘narrative spirit’. Like novel series, it releases its scents in thematic trilogies: on holy water, say, or trees. One of the chief preoccupations of its founders is how scent can be translated into different forms of artistic expression, an idea that the brand explored in a film and dance collaboration set to Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Élévation’.One could easily dismiss this as puffery, the usual eyes-glaze-over marketing guff grafted onto a luxury product. But its founders are serious about scent, and to advance their philosophy they have called on their own Perfumier Laureate: award-winning novelist Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. ‘I wanted to show that the beauty of fragrance can also reside in the realm of strangeness, darkness, depth,’ said Di Méo in an interview. ‘This is for example why I appealed to author Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, because the dark romanticism that animates his work seemed in tune with the spirit of my brand.’ A dedicated feature on the perfume house’s website anoints Del Amo as ‘a master of the olfactory landscape’. ‘Is he a nose disguised as a writer or a Baudelaire reborn as a master perfumer?’ it asks. The ensuing interview canvasses Del Amo on his most memorable odours (decaying flesh), his perfume preferences (he prefers ‘baffling’ perfumes to ones more obviously appealing) and his thoughts on the ‘olfactory identity’ of different cities (he singles out Havana and Kyoto).
Del Amo, born in 1981, is one of France’s most decorated young novelists. His 2008 Une éducation libertine, about a penniless nineteen-year-old thrust from a Breton pig farm to the squalid Paris of Louis XV, won the Prix Goncourt for best first novel; 2013’s Pornographia, about a gay man’s delirious nocturnal escapade through an unnamed tropical city, won the Prix Sade in honour of the debauched Marquis. These richly sensory novels show his keen nose in action: in the former, Paris is France’s « nombril crasseux et puant » (‘filthy and stinking navel’); in the latter, the city abounds with « l’odeur de sexe crasseux, de bois piqué, de fruit talé, d’urine rance, de sueur tropicale » (‘the smell of filthy sex, worm-eaten wood, bruised fruit, rancid urine and tropical sweat’). This nasal symphony reaches a crescendo in his wonderful—and utterly merciless—2016 novel Règne animal, which charts five generations of a Gascon pig-farming family between 1898 and 1981. The winner of a host of French awards including the Prix du Livre Inter, Règne animal—thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions and the vivid translation of Frank Wynne—is the first of Del Amo’s works to appear in English, and an intoxicating introduction to the author’s literature of stink.
While the French title literally translates as Animal Kingdom, the English title is Animalia, perhaps to distinguish it from the dreary Australian gangster film of the same name. However, the Latinate Animalia feels very appropriate. It is more taxonomic, and Del Amo’s novel is a taxonomy of sorts: of smell, yes, but also of cruelty and of historical change. Academic and writer Christine Marcandier imagined Animalia with a Balzacian subtitle (Grandeur et décadence d’une exploitation agricole) and a Zolian one (Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille): these give a sense of the novel’s formidable scope.
Fortunately there is no question, as Henry James said of Balzac, of the historian overwhelming the novelist: Del Amo’s focus on the family is relentless, and we only witness historical changes in so far as they impinge on the central clan. In the first half of the book, set between 1898 and 1917, this family consists of the child Eléonore; her emaciated, dying father and the cruel mother Del Amo refers to as ‘the genetrix’; and their distant cousin Marcel, who takes the father’s place and later fights in the Great War. In the second half, set in 1981, these are an unruly bunch consisting of Eléonore again, now the wizened matriarch; her authoritarian, resentful son Henri, whose iron grip on the farm is loosened by a secret cancer he is too proud to treat; Henri’s sons, the broken man-husks Serge, alcoholic and aggressive, and Joël, a closet homosexual; Serge’s bed-ridden, manic depressive wife Catherine; and Serge and Catherine’s two children, the autistic, mute Jérôme and his older sister, Julie Marie, with whom he is fixated.
If Del Amo the historian does not overwhelm Del Amo the novelist, then Del Amo the butcher might. If you feel like a particularly grim game of roulette, open the book at random and chances are you will find a sentence like this, on the late father’s putrefying body: ‘In the faecal magma of the abdomen, a silent army emerges. The commensal bacteria toil, proliferate and transform the guts into a primordial sludge.’ (p.83) Or this, on a miscarrying sow: ‘A purulent whitish discharge trickles from her vulva, down her hocks, forming a pool on the concrete floor in which the aborted foetuses lie, small sacs of pink, blood-smeared skin with undeveloped limbs.’ (p.317)
This physicality is unrelenting. Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque—the novel’s fictional village in the southwestern département of Gers±spews with pig excrement, rat urine, stagnant water and bloated innards. And yet, for all their foulness, these passages never overpower the story: they are the story. Del Amo describes the piggery as ‘the cradle of [the family’s] barbarism and of their whole world’. It is the story of an infected society, of the transmission of cruelty from generation to generation; human, animal, land bound in corruption and woundedness. Here the conjuring of scent is not merely an incidental detail: it is central to Del Amo’s purpose. By a wide margin, Animalia evokes smell more profoundly than any other sense. In a novel of 410 pages, I underlined 158 passages describing smells, some of which are quite lengthy, and this does not account for smell-adjacent words such as ‘acrid’, ‘putrid’ and ‘rotting’.
Early on in the book, the young Eléonore watches her father guiding a ploughshare dragged by two oxen. She watches him ‘stop the yoke, bend down and pick up a glistening clod of earth, bring it to his nose and inhale the scent’, a spiritual communion between man and land. The father is our olfactory stand-in; Del Amo is constantly inviting us to inhale. He loves to mix his scents. In the farmhouse, the father’s tobacco mingles with ‘the perfumes of damp clay sodden by the rains’. In the village square, the methane of the belching cows ‘mingles with the smells of dough and of bread baking in the boulangerie’. As the father lays dying, he is confined to a claustrophobic room that
reeks of decay and sour sweat, of the fumes of hooch and of soup served to warm people up, of the breath that mouths of rotting teeth and ulcerous stomachs have been spewing all day, endlessly rebreathing the same musty air that mists the windowpanes.As war comes, so does the smell of death. The depleted village no longer has a knackers’ yard, so the carcass of a dead mare is left to rot; when it is finally hauled away, it leaves ‘a trail of black, putrid slime crawling with vermin’. Hospital wards ‘reek of ether, tobacco and necrosis’. In an extraordinary sequence, the farm’s animals are commandeered to feed the troops, rounded up at a railyard and herded mindlessly into wagons to be transported a few kilometres from the Front; there, they are penned into a barbed-wire enclosures, then slaughtered and dismembered in butchery tents. It is an orgy of feculence and cruelty, a herald of the war—the century—to come. Witness the ‘mingled stenches of an abattoir, a fetid byre and a charnel house’; the gnats and horseflies that swarm, ‘like the fourth plague of Egypt’, over the diseased livestock, ‘around open wounds, gorging on sweat, on blood, on dung’; the stray dogs with blood-flecked muzzles fighting over entrails that are ‘doused with petrol and torched, giving off the charred smell of a funeral pyre’. The horror is in the miasma.
Animalia is not just about barbarism. It is also about time. Smells become a vector of historical change. When Marcel returns from the war, with a sewn-up eye socket and ruined impression of a face, his experience is contained within his smell: ‘The smell of straw, of animals and sweat has given way to that of alcohol and ether, of morphine and oil of camphor, of stale tobacco and hooch.’ This game of olfactory compare and contrast can be most profitably played between the book’s two halves, when the peasant farmland of 1914 gives way to the intensive mechanized operation of 1981. Before, the fields ‘smell of hay, wild garlic, broom and warm stones’; now, the brothers breathe ‘shallow gulps of ammoniacal emanations’ and ‘the acrid stench of Cresyl [a disinfectant] and slurry’.
With time comes memory. Buried within the cruelty is a more elegiac novel about the irretrievable past. Characters vainly attempt to keep memories alive, try to divine odeurs perdus. When the men of the village go off to the Great War, superstitious residents make shrouds of suits that ‘for a few hours, perhaps a few days’ retain the smell of the departed man. Eléonore goes out looking for Marcel’s smell amid the smell of the animals; she latches on to passing men and inhales their scent, hoping to connect it to ‘a face that is already distant, vague, tenuous’. When Serge returns home, smelling of booze, he comes across his sister-in-law, Gabrielle. She reminds him of his wife before she became ill, so he buries his face in her neck and inhales, ‘hoping to smell Catherine, not as she is today, a sickly, medicinal smell, but the Catherine of old, fragrant and intoxicating’.
This connection, between smell and memory, works both ways. There aren’t just passing smells that evade recapture; there are ineradicable smells that invoke an atavistic, ancestral memory. All members of the sprawling, second-half household, from the elderly Eléonore to the twins Jérôme and Julie-Marie, are described as carrying on them a vomit-like smell that they can no longer smell themselves, ‘embedded in their clothes, their sinuses, their hair’. ‘Over the generations, they have acquired this ability to produce and exude the smell of pigs, to naturally smell of pig.’ As Serge contemplates this odour, it becomes something transcendent and immense, an object of volcanic, elemental myth:
Sometimes, he forgets this smell. For long periods, it disappears. Then he rediscovers it, often in his dreams—it comes with the shriek, the wail of a body of animals, a single, convulsive, menacing mass, hidden from view, brooding in limbo, in the deep shadows—just as those who lose their sight late in life see primitive images in their dreams. When it appears in his dreams, he instantly recognises it and catches in his throat, this stench that rises from buried worlds as through a rip in the earth, in memory, in time: a smell of mire, of silt, of Archaean lava, of fossil layers, the foul smell of sickly, putrid wombs.Asked whether perfume returns us to visceral sensations or offers us spiritual transcendence, Del Amo says: ‘Both.’ He adds: ‘I am keenly interested in perfumes that use specks of emotions and memories in order to transcend them, to bring them elsewhere, to reshape them.’ For the author, the power of smell is bound up with the memory of childhood; he relates this to his own nasally satisfying upbringing in Cugnaux, a small village on the outskirts of Toulouse. ‘Most of my childhood memories are linked to smell. The smell is a way of reaching that time of my life, which is irremediably lost.’ Animalia dedicates considerable time to this notion: indeed, many of its most fragrant passages are refracted through its two children, Eléonore and, in particular, Jérôme, who roams freely through le paysage gersois, breathing in the ‘scent of grasses bowed by the dew’, the ‘musty tang of dungheaps behind farms’, the ‘acid perfume’ of a flower’s corolla. Not all of the smells are pleasurable—there is still fertilizer, diesel, the whiff of slurry—but through the prism of childhood they take on a vital quality: the quality of enchantment.
More than any other sense, evoking smell presents a linguistic challenge. Our ability to sniff out odours lags behind our capacity to articulate them, something John Locke observed in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
There is a great variety of smells, though we have but a few names for them; sweet, stinking, sour, rank, and musty are almost all the denominations we have for odours; though the smell of a violet and of musk, both called sweet, are as distinct as any two smells whatsoever.This paucity is common to Indo-European languages. In French as in English, one is restricted to a small number of words; Del Amo’s core lexicon consists primarily of ‘odeur’, ‘parfum’ and ‘puanteur’ and to a lesser extent ‘effluve’ and ‘remugle’. When you combine these limited tools with the differences between English and French, one appreciates all the more Frank Wynne’s feat: it is hard enough translating smells into language, let alone between languages.
Euan Cameron, who along with Wynne is Patrick Modiano’s UK translator, previously described the challenges of translating Philippe Claudel’s ‘olfactory memoir’ Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells. French, he said, is better equipped to describe the evanescent and ethereal; English vocabulary may be wider, but it is more specific and direct. The word ‘parfum’ is a case in point. It has several meanings: perfume; more generally, an agreeable scent; it also means flavour. It does not directly correspond with ‘aroma’, ‘scent’ or ‘fragrance’. The word ‘odeur’ is another. In French, it is neutral; in English, it has unpleasant connotations. Wynne deftly navigates this dense fog of fume. As the father lies dying on the bed, « l’odeur putride de l’agonie » becomes ‘the putrid stench of death’, stronger than merely ‘putrid smell’; when they sit down around him, « attablés dans le parfum acide » that he emits, they ‘sit down to eat in the acidic miasma’. As Joël, Henri and Serge observe the squelchy hell of the mating pigs, « l’odeur de ces fluides répandus » (the smell of these spilled fluids) becomes the agreeably alliterative ‘acrid smell of spilled secretions’.
In Joris-Karl Huysmans’ breviary of decadence À rebours, the reclusive aesthete Des Esseintes retreats into a life of experimental sensualism, manufacturing from perfumes entire worlds. When Del Amo mixes his smellscapes, he situates himself in this proud French olfactory tradition—of Huysmans; of Colette, who not only embraced the title of ‘olfactory novelist’ but went one further and opened her own beauty salon; and, of course, of Marcel Proust. It wasn’t just the taste, after all, of the madeleine that the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu found so incredibly evocative. ‘The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time like souls,’ goes that seminal passage, ‘ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment.’
The unique Gallic relationship to odour is charted in Alain Corbin’s 1982 The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Between 1760 and 1880, argues Corbin, an adherent of the French historiographical tradition of l’histoire des mentalités, there was a rise in ‘olfactory vigilance’. Influenced by new theories of public health and urban planning, elites became less tolerant of strong odours in streets and courtyards. Via paving and ventilation, they deodorised public spaces; via the privy, they privatized the act of defecation. The masses, however, retained a ‘loyalty to filth’, while in fashionable circles this heightened sensitivity to personal odour led to the super-refinement encapsulated in À rebours. And yet, for all this newfound vigilance, progress in public health was uneven; the French were slow to embrace British innovations like mains drainage. Corbin puts this down to a fundamentally different cultural attitude:
The relative indifference shown by the French to cleanliness, their rejection of water, their long tolerance of strong bodily odours, and their continued privatisation of excrement and rubbish cannot be explained solely by a secret distrust of innovation, by relative poverty, or by slow urbanisation. It was the collective attitude towards the body, the organic functions, and the sensory messages that governed behaviour.John Sutherland, surveying Corbin’s observations, argued that the English could never produce a novel like À rebours; the same could be said of Animalia, whose sustained sensory potency is largely alien to Anglophone writing. ‘Few men of great genius had exercised their parts in writing books upon the subjects of great noses,’ lamented Tristram Shandy; these words hold true today. It falls to the likes of Del Amo and Wynne to rouse in us a ‘loyalty to filth’, to teach us to read with the nose. ‘You gave me your mud and I turned it into gold,’ said Baudelaire to the city of Paris; Del Amo, working with the history-drenched soil of Gers, has been given mud and turned it into perfume.
- Daniel Marc Janes
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.