Animalia

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

Translated by Frank Wynne

Published 20 March 2019
French paperback with flaps, 416 pages

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I. THIS FILTHY EARTH (1898–1914) 

From the first evening in spring to the last vigils of autumn, he sits on the little worm-eaten hobnailed bench, his body hunched, beneath the window set into the stone wall that frames a theatre of shadows. Inside, a spluttering oil lamp on the oak table and the fire in the hearth project the bustling shadow of his wife onto walls mottled with saltpetre, shooting it up towards the rafters or breaking it on a corner, and this hesitant, yellow light swells the room then pierces the darkness of the farmyard, leaving the father motionless, silhouetted against a semblance of sunlight. Regardless of the season, he waits for night here, on the wooden bench where he saw his father sit before him, its moss-covered legs buckled by the years now beginning to give way. When he sits on this bench, his knees come a quarter-way up his belly and he has trouble getting to his feet, yet he has never considered replacing it, not if there were nothing left but a plank lying on the ground. He believes that things should remain as he has always known them for as long as possible, as others before him believed they should be, or as custom and wear has made them.

 

Coming home from the fields, he leans against the door frame and removes his boots, carefully scraping the mud off the soles, then stops on the threshold and inhales the damp air, the breath of the animals, the unpleasant smells of the ragout and the soup that mist the windows, just as he stood as a child, waiting for his mother to beckon him to the table, or for his father to come and hurry him along with a dig in the shoulder. At the nape of his neck, his long, lean body curves and takes a curious angle. A neck so bronzed that even in winter it does not pale, but looks as though it is covered by grimy, cracked leather and seems broken. The first vertebra protrudes from between the shoulder blades like a bony cyst. He takes off his shapeless hat, revealing a pate already bald and freckled by the sun, holds it in his hands for a moment, perhaps trying to remember what he should do next, perhaps waiting for a command from that same mother, long since dead, swallowed and consumed by the earth. Faced with the wife’s determined silence, he finally decides to step inside, trailing his own stench and the stench of the animals as far as the box-bed, and pulls the door open. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, or leaning against the carved wood, he unbuttons his rancid shirt between fits of coughing. At day’s end, what he cannot bear is not the weight of a body which disease has painstakingly stripped of fat and muscle, but his own verticality; at any moment it looks as though he might collapse, might fall like a leaf, fluttering in the musty air of the room, right to left, left to right, before settling on the floor or sliding under the bed.

On the fire, in a cast-iron cauldron, the water has finally begun to boil and the genetrix hands Éléonore the pitcher of cold water. The child takes slow steps, fearful of tilting the jug which, despite her intense concentration on her hands and forearms, splashes, soaks the rolled-up sleeves of her blouse, as she ceremoniously advances towards the father. She feels a shiver run down her spine beneath the reproachful gaze of the genetrix who is following close on her heels, threatening to spill the basin of boiling water over her if she does not hurry. Framed in the half-light like a great brig, elbows on his knees, hands hanging limply before him, the father is lost in contemplation of the knotted wood of the wardrobe, or the taper burning on the washstand whose flames struggle against the shadows. The oval of the mirror nailed to the wall offers a distorted, barely visible reflection of the room. Two cows, chewing the cud, poke their heads through an opening cut into the cob wall at waist-height. The heat from their stationary bodies and their excreta warm the people. The little scenes played out in the glow of the hearth are reflected in their bluish pupils. At the sight of the wife and the child, the father seems to return from some vague daydream to this puny, deep-veined body. Despite himself, he summons the strength to move, stretches his pale back, straightens the torso where grey hairs sprout like rye grass in the furrows of ribs and collarbones. His belly is gaunt, yellow in the candlelight. He extends the arms with their calloused elbows and sometimes gives a faint smile.

The genetrix pours hot water into the bowl set on the washstand. She takes the pitcher from Éléonore and sets it on the shelf before returning to her kitchen without so much as looking at the father, keen to avoid the sight of this man, bare-chested and raw-boned as the Christ nailed to the wall at the foot of the bed. From high on the cross, He watches over her as she sleeps and appears to her in her late, drowsy prayers, the crucified, funereal effigy of the father sleeping next to her, outlined by a glimmer of moonlight or the guttering stub of a candle whose glow slips through a chink in the door of the boxbed, the man she carefully keeps at arm’s length, since she cannot bear his sweat, his sharp bones, his ragged breathing. But at times she thinks that, in turning away from this man who married her and made her pregnant, she is betraying her faith and turning away from the Son, and from God Himself. At such times, moved by guilt, she turns to this man, the husband, with a halflook, a faint, grudging gesture of compassion, and gets up to empty the basin of blood-mottled gobs of spittle he hawks up during the night, prepares a poultice of mustard seeds or an infusion of thyme, honey and brandy which he sips, leaning against the head of the bed, propped up on his pillows, almost moved by this solicitude, taking care to drink slowly to signal his gratitude, as though he savours these bitter, ineffective decoctions, while she paces the room. For already the image of the crucified father has faded and with it her guilt, and now she longs to return to bed as soon as possible and lose herself in sleep. She comes and goes, cup or basin in hand, grumbling about his sickly constitution in a voice so low that he takes her words for lamentations, against this chronic infection that has been eating away at his lungs for almost ten years, turning a once hale and hearty man into a haggard, spent creature fit only for a sanatorium; then grumbling about her own misfortune or the cruel fate with which she is forced to contend, she who has already cared for an invalid mother and buried both her parents.

As the father bends over the steaming basin, draws water in his cupped hands and brings it to his face, Éléonore stands back, attentive to every gesture of these ablutions, performed every evening in precisely the same order, the same rhythm, in the pool of light cast by the lamp. If the genetrix tells her to sit down, she watches out of the corner of her eye, observing the curve of the back, the rosary beads of the vertebrae, the soapy glove passing over the epidermis, the aching muscles, his movements as he slips on a clean shirt. Animated by a fragile grace, his fingers race along the buttons like the tremulous legs of a moth, the death’s-head hawkmoths that eclose from chrysalides in the potato fields. Then he gets up, comes to the table and, when the genetrix in turn sits down, raises his joined hands to his face, his proximal phalanges interlaced, his gaze lost somewherebeyond the ridges of the fingers and their bony knuckles, the grubby fingernails. He says grace in a voice made deeper by his cough and finally they eat, with no sound but their mastications, the grating of cutlery against the bottom of their plates and the buzzing of the flies they no longer shoo from the corners of their lips, the genetrix swallowing hard to choke down the stone lodged against her glottis, the irritation caused by the slavering grunts and grinding of molars that escape the husband’s lips.

Of all bodily functions, ingestion is the one the genetrix truly abhors. And yet this woman has no qualms about hiking up her skirt and petticoats and spreading her legs to relieve herself wherever she might find herself – in the middle of a field, over the gutter in a village street, even the dung heap that dominates the farmyard, her urine streaming along the ground, mingling with that of the animals – or, when the call of nature is different, scarcely ducks behind a bush to hunker down and defecate. She consumes only meagre rations, niggardly mouthfuls, reluctantly swallowed with a pout of disgust or immediate satiation. She finds the appetite of others more abhorrent still. She chastises the child and the man who have learned to eat with their heads bowed, and whenever the father piteously pleads for another glass of wine she reminds him – glancing warily at the girl – how Noah when in drink revealed his nakedness before his sons, or how Lot committed incest. She practises self-imposed fasts that last for days, for weeks, allowing herself only a few sips of water when racked with thirst. In summer, she vows to economize and eat only blackberries or fruits from the orchard. When she finds a worm buried in the heart of a plum, an apple, she looks at it, shows it, then eats it. She finds in it the taste of sacrifice. She has shrivelled until she is no more than a sheath of bloodless skin stretched taut over knotty muscles and jagged bones. Only during the Eucharist, at Sunday mass, when she receives communion at the altar rail, does Éléonore see the genetrix take pleasure in eating. She rapturously sucks the Body of Christ then walks back to her pew with a haughty air, greedily eyeing the pyx in which Father Antoine jealously guards the consecrated hosts. As she leaves the church, she pauses on the square, imperious, while people around her chatter, as though she needs to rouse herself from a daydream in which the communion, received by all but only truly by her, conferred on her a singular importance, marking her out from the throng of villagers. With her tongue, she detaches the last crumbs of unleavened bread from the roof of her mouth, then sets off along the path into the hills without exchanging a word with anyone, dragging the girl by the arm while the father, profiting from the rare hours of freedom she allows, goes off to drink in the company of other men. Once a year, she feels the need to make a pilgrimage to Cahuzac, in Gimoès, where she prays to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Beata Maria Virgo Perdolens, whose statue, discovered by a farmer in the middle ages, is said to work miracles, and to which she feels connected by some mystery. But when, in Advent, young men come to her door to sing l’Aiguillonné, which promises health and happiness, she is reluctant to open the door, complaining at having to squander a little eau-de-vie or a few eggs in exchange. She alone knows what distinguishes faith from superstition. At market, she sometimes encounters fortune tellers: on such occasions she jerks away the child with such force she might dislocate her shoulder, while over her own shoulder she shoots the soothsayer a look of mingled envy, anger and regret.

(...)

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 Éléonore, the matriarch, and that of Jérôme, 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, 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 

‘Gruelling but magisterial, Animalia spans the decades from Eléonore’s childhood to her dotage, telling the tale of this “hostile, implacable land”, and how five generations survive on a single plot of rural soil. Del Amo’s novel is a massive sensory experience; no detail is too small to let ferment.’
— Cal Revely-Calder, The Telegraph

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

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, born in 1981, is one of France’s most exciting and ambitious young writers. He is the author of Pornographia, Le sel, and Une éducation libertine, which won the Goncourt First Novel Prize. Animalia, his fourth novel, is his first to appear in English.

Frank Wynne is a literary translator. He has translated works by Francophone authors including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Pierre Lemaitre, Ahmadou Kourouma and Virginie Despentes. Having spent almost a decade living in Latin America he began translating from Spanish in 2010, with authors including Tómas Eloy Martínez, Javier Cercas and Almudena Grandes. His work has earned various awards, including the IMPAC Prize (2002), the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005), the Scott Moncrieff Prize (2008, 2016) and the Premio Valle Inclán (2012, 2014).