Monday, May 2, 2016

The Man I Became - Peter Verhelst

Translated by David Colmer.

I have a stack of Peirene books waiting for when I have the energy to really think about them, because they are books that demand and deserve some thought. (I'm waiting on blood tests, but the doctor thinks I'm probably anaemic which would explain the last few months of being really tired, headaches, and general crappiness - in which state I prefer something more comforting and comfortable to read.)

With time off and a train journey just the right length to be filled by a novella though it would have been positively wrong not to read at least one of them so I chose 'The Man I Became' by Peter Verhelst. It's from the fairy tale series and is narrated by a gorilla (or is it?) plucked from the jungle and trained to become human.

The introductory paragraph describes it as a mixing of Huxley's 'Brave New World' which I haven't read (and probably should) with Orwell's 'Animal Farm' which I have read and found every bit as depressing as Orwell could have intended. 'The Man I Became' on the other hand I found uplifting more than anything else, or at least hopeful (does that bode well for 'Brave New World'?).

The story starts with the gorilla's at home in the jungle (if the back blurb didn't specifically say gorilla I would have been wary of making the assumption, I don't think it's ever explicitly stated so much as implied, and that ambiguity is useful) but members of the group keep disappearing, until eventually someone comes for our narrator. After that the group is marched across a desert, caged in a ship, and then trained in boot camp conditions to pass as human, eventually some of them may even become human, but can training truly overcome instinct, and what are principles when it comes to self preservation?

On the most basic level the story races along because it's clear from the start that this is a set up that can only end up in some kind of disaster, and I wanted to know how it would play out - the answer to that question was unexpectedly satisfying, and in the end hopeful. Just under the surface the allusions to the historical slave trade, modern people trafficking - both refugees, and for those still essentially slaves - capitalism, the short comings of western culture, how we measure success, mould history, generally treat each other, and identify ourselves and others provide plenty to think about.

For me it's the history of colonialism along with its attendant fears for what assimilation of 'others' might mean that really looms large, but as with any good fairy tale there is room for far more than
one interpretation or moral. There's also a lot to consider regarding how we treat those we see as better than ourselves, and those we see as somehow less - socially, racially, educationally - pick your prejudice. But in the end all I can say is read it and see!

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