French author Jean-Baptiste Del Amo won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for Une éducation libertine in 2008, and in 2016 published Règne animal, a denunciation of the violent treatment of animals. Driven by lyrical, organic writing, it will be released in English in the United States on September 10 as Animalia.
Rarely does a book stimulate all the senses to such an extent, sometimes to the point of nausea. Reading Animalia, a novel filled with flesh, sex, and blood, is not for the faint of heart. Prepare for the stench of putrefaction, images of pigs with their throats cut, and detailed descriptions of bodily fluids. For Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, beauty comes from dirt, and from crudeness combined with poetic writing. His first novel, Une éducation libertine, follows a young libertine through the filthy, stinking Paris of the 18th century. After Le Sel, a day in the life of a family from Sète, and Pornographia (2013 Prix Sade), which portrayed a young man’s nocturnal sexual adventures in Havana, the author has returned to historical storytelling and continues exploring his favorite themes of bodies and death.
Between the late 19th century and 1981, the year of his birth, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo tells the tale of a family of pig farmers in Southwest France across three generations. After overcoming harsh beginnings, their success is thwarted by an epidemic caused by the excesses of intensive farming. As a member of the L214 activist group, which condemns the practices of slaughterhouses, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo delivers a parable on animal exploitation.
With a vision that flies in the face of our sterilized, overly hygienic society, which turns a blind eye to death, he reveals the wild side of humanity, for better or for worse. Focusing on the natural world surrounding the farm, the writer starts a silent dialogue between humans and animals: A frog perches on a coffin; an injured crow is tamed; and a grass snake curls up on a young boy’s chest.
Predatory threat and desire are also omnipresent through the figure of the Beast, an enormous boar that has escaped the stables and that the farmers are hunting down to kill. “The boar runs through a ploughed field, trips over the hard, frozen furrows, gets to his feet, reaches a thicket of trees and disappears inside. He is cold and shivering, wisps of steam rising from his wet bristles,” writes Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. Whether portrayed through the sickness decimating the pigs or the cancer eating away at humans, the world observed by the writer is akin to a vast, diseased body. With Animalia, the author has achieved a powerful novel to be read either as a fable or a no-holds-barred attack on a system of production running itself into the ground.
=> Animalia, by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated from French by Frank Wynne, Grove Press, 2019. 384 pages, 26 dollars.
Article published in the September 2019 issue of France-Amérique