Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. 416 pages.
Good novels pique or even hold your attention; great ones transcend their subject, becoming much-needed exposés of the myriad of deep-seated societal, and psychological issues that plague our world. A multi-sensorial experience replete with excreta, urine, blood, and a plethora of other bodily fluids, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia rests securely in the second category and has completely reimagined the pastoral novel in revelatory ways.
Retracing the history of a desperately poor French family through the twentieth century as they develop their small parcel of land into an intensive, drug-infused pig farm, this compassionate story comes laced with anger, beautiful lyricism, and transportive eloquence. It is also chock-full of blood and brutality. Framed in two distinct periods and set primarily within the small village of Puy-Larroque in southwest France, the plot captures the years leading up to the Great War and the early 1980s – which, coincidentally or not, also happens to be when Del Amo himself came into the world.
Rather than depicting an idealized vision of rural life to coax swaths of urban readers into the romance of the countryside, the book, per contra, sheds mortuary fluorescent light on the terrors and tragedies that inundate a horrendous multigenerational affair, where no balm could ever hope to soothe the melancholy souls that wallow forever in life’s ordure.
From one generation to the next, no year is calm, much less bucolic, rather the souls that inhabit this fallen, untamable land slog daily, monthly, and yearly through the “unspeakable mire” of their struggle and feuds, mirroring, in many ways, the fate of their animal counterparts, who are churned out in endless cycles of birth, growth, suffering, and finally, death. From one matriarch genetrix and shame-ridden father to the next, each successive link in the generational chain of lineage passes its own “toxic legacy” of violence and hardship onto the next – the sinister pair clinging not only to their permanently dusty vestments but to their very bloodline.
In Del Amo’s dark saga, violence is never simply an act but a ritual, a way of life, and a daily transgression ingrained like the rings of a tree that demarcate the years.
“They have plunged knives into the throats of pigs and the eyes of rabbits. They have hunted deer and wild boar. They have drowned puppies and slit the throats of sheep. They have trapped foxes, poisoned rats, decapitated geese, ducks and chickens. Since birth, they have watched killings. They have watched their father and their mothers take the lives of animals. They learned the gestures and copied them. They in turn have killed hares, cocks, cattle, piglets, pigeons. They have shed blood, and sometimes drunk it.”
The darkness that pervades from start to finish is reminiscent of that of a coffin being laid into its earthly abode where the only company to be had is that of the earthly strata which reigns indifferent to the destinies of men. Yet, everything is at the same time remarkably translucent – flesh, innards, grey, bloated skies, semen, simulacrums, thin, masculine hands, drops of urine which drip from a crucifix, a membrane that splits as a cow gives birth, slivers of disgusting toenails, the shed skin of a snake – everything but the morally conflicted hearts which thirst for something beyond the nightmare that is life on a pig farm, with all its rhythmic, savage habits.
It’s this palette of darkness and clarity, death, and life, which unfolds like a solemn cortège from one word to the next, and one can’t help but evoke images of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters or Charles De Groux’s The Blessing Before Supper. Both masterpieces in their own right, they capture the solemnity of this tale – the crippling poverty, the isolation felt among family members, the bodies worn by years of struggle, the children who come into the world like livestock and only remain children for the blink of an eye before they are whisked into daily battles with the “hostile, implacable land”- which they proceed to beat mercilessly in an attempt to force it to their will.
Undoubtedly harsh and filled with both pathos and rage, Del Amo has nonetheless painted an accurate depiction of the farm as an ever-expanding universe that is beyond escape for both man and animal – a cruel world where men and beasts are born in the same time, the same space, both struggling endlessly before passing into the eternal abyss.
It is also a world where past, present, and future are obliterated in the monotony of rhythms and cycles, harvests and slaughters, as days, months, and seasons blur, undifferentiated from one to the next, with interchangeable hours that vary only in weather as the men become ever more desensitized to the harshness of their actions. Numbed by the routine business of rearing and killing ad nauseam, they grow ever more indifferent to suffering, to animals, indifferent even to the knowledge of their own mortality.
And yet life goes on, as boys of seven and ten are taught to slit the throats of piglets with sharpened Laguiole knives, a task the women take over when men are whisked into the great gulfs opened by war. Leaving the landscape taciturn and silent with only vestiges of faith lingering like the fainting flicker emanating from votive candles burning in the church, many of the men never return, and if they do, they’re not the same men who left. Ravaged by the brutalities of war, they return as specters of their former selves, marred almost beyond recognition.
The funereal cloud which hangs ominously above each word slowly but surely morphs into bulbous plumes of cancerous DDT, Chlordane, and PCBs as we enter the 80s, leaving bodies and earth riddled much like those on the silent, blood-sodden landscapes of battle, with irreparable damage and monochromatic fields awash with the perpetual tinge of disease and the unrelenting sting of death.
Like war, life on the farm is all in the name of yields, of progress, of surrender and submission. By pushing the farm to constantly produce more, the story’s ensemble of lost laborers are “proportionally increasing their workload and their violence.” As such, generations of working the unforgiving land invariably transform the men and women indefinitely, to the point where everyone seems to be trailing invisible scars too deep to ever heal, sins perhaps too large to ever be absolved. And, little by the little, the crumbling farmhouse that we have come to know intimately begins to feel less like a house and more like a mausoleum.
The sky is only ever a deep cerulean blue but for a moment in Del Amo’s tale. Most of the time it’s grey, like a necrotic tissue covering the earth. Fleeting bursts of happiness are quickly snuffed out, and tranquility doesn’t last. And, while the silence of rural monotony seems unending for many pages at a time, it often gives way to squeals and grunts, cries and jabs as appendages are cut off, broken, and disarticulated at regular intervals.
Eventually, as time passes, the sounds of brutality not only continue but mutate into the deep, guttural growl of machines that bore into eardrums, as modernity seeps in with its electric heaters, heat lamps that pulse, and blister packs of Tercian, Teralithe 400, and Anafranil. Yet, even with such advances in technology, tools, and medicines, sanitation and wellbeing seem eternally precarious, leaving the family always one fatal slip away from one of the countless epidemics that invariably loom.
Reading Del Amo’s words feels as though you’re steadily sinking deeper into the vast, distressing mire, and yet, there’s a baptismal quality about the endeavor, a cleansing and an awakening takes place that, eventually, like an arduous pilgrimage to some holy land, rewards. The prize is not comprehending the madness of industrial animal agriculture, but rather a better understanding of it, and, as a result, a better understanding of ourselves.
In the end, we can’t help but see the underlying truth of the original genetrix’s prognostications about man’s propensity for evil and its inevitable consequences. Man’s quest to conquer nature is nothing new, yet Del Amo has turned the mirror on us, where the transmission of violence and disease from one generation to the next continues to infect. The question we are left with, when all is said and done, is can we ever hope for redemption within the brutality of such a pitiless world.
Damascus James is a writer and founder of Texas Letters. He lives in Texas.