flapped paperback

The Son of Man

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

Translated by Frank Wynne

Published 23 May 2024
French paperback with flaps, 224 pages

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The leader stops, looks up at the sky and, for an instant, the black disc of his pupil aligns with the white disc of the sun, the star sears the retina and the creature crawling through the matricial mud turns away to contemplate the valley through which he is trudging with others of his kind: a landscape whipped by winds, sparse undergrowth dotted here and there with shrubs that have a mournful air; over this bleak terrain floats the negative afterimage of the day star, a black moon suspended on the horizon.

For days now, they have been marching westward, into the biting autumn wind. Thick, unkempt beards erode the hard features of the men. Ruddy-faced women carry newborns in tattered pelts. Many will die along the way, from the blue bitter cold or from dysentery contracted from stagnant watering holes where the feral herds come to drink. For them the men, with their gnarled fingers or their blades, will dig desolate hollows in the earth.
     Into these pits they will place the shrouded bodies, more piteous still in the darkness of the grave; they will drop in useless trinkets, the fur in which the child would nestle, a doll of plaited hemp, a necklet of bones that will soon be indistinguishable from those of the dead child. Onto the lifeless face they will toss fistfuls of earth that seal up the eyes, the mouth, then they will place heavy rocks upon the burial mound to protect the remains from carrion feeders scavenging for sustenance. At length, they will set off once more, and only the mother will perhaps give a last glance over her shoulder at the glittering pile of stones quickly consumed by the shadow cast by the hill.

An old man drags his emaciated body beneath a thick pelt whose fleece moves with each gust of wind. Time was, he led the group through plains and valleys, along the banks of waterways towards more nourishing earth, more clement skies. Now, he struggles to follow those younger and more robust than he, those who walk ahead, who decide where to pitch camp at dusk and strike camp at daybreak. Sometimes, at the mouth of a cave where they break their journey, they may light a fire that slashes the darkness, its flames illumining sketches of creatures that others before them have daubed onto the walls by the flickering glow of a tallow lamp.
     In the crushing darkness, they huddle together, their rude bodies buried beneath great pelts from which only their faces emerge. Their breath condenses, their eyes remain open, while mothers attempt to soothe their babes, brushing a breast against their lips. Some of the men talk in low voices, stir up the embers which blaze and send out sparks whose reflections orbit the irises of those keeping watch and soar and whirl as though they would rejoin the firmament where other stars gutter out and die, engulfed by the ravening heart of night.

The enforced closeness beneath the covering pelts enjoins them to couple. Sometimes ignoring the child she is warming against her belly, the male will seize the rump that the female offers or listlessly denies him, and, taking the sex he has lubricated with a thick gob of spittle, will thrust until he comes inside her. Before trickling down her thigh as she drifts off again, the seed may fecundate the female, who, three seasons later, biting down on a piece of wood, will be delivered in the shadow of a hedgerow, a few steps from the camp the group has pitched to allow for the birthing.
     Crouching on the ground, her arms gripped by other women who sponge her brow in turn, her calves, her sex, she will expel the fruit of this siring onto the bare earth, or into the hands of a midwife. The umbilical cord will be cut with a sharp flint. The thing thus dragged into the light and laid upon the empty skin of the belly will crawl in order to drink colostrum from the teat, thereby initiating the cycle necessary to its survival that will see it tirelessly ingurgitate the world and excrete it.

If the child survives the first summers and the first winters, if his remains do not go to join all those they have already lost along the way – of one of these, snatched by a marten and carried to a nearby pool, there remains only the ribcage, half-buried in the mud where, beneath the vault of ribs that will soon crumble to dust, a bone-white sprig of common horsetail rises – he will soon walk beside others of his kind, be welcomed among them, learn to read the map of the stars, to strike flints to produce fire or fashion knives, learn the secrets of plants, bind up wounds and ready the bodies of the dead for their ultimate journey.

Perhaps the child will know a reprieve, survive to reach the fateful hour when his already weary flesh issues the order to reproduce. At this, he will tirelessly seek to mate with another of his kind, blindly fumbling and groping another of the miserable creatures in the cold of the blazing darkness, as the Milky Way punctures the sky above their heads. Then, having trodden the earth awhile, having known a handful of pallid dawns and twilights, the searing intensity of childhood and the body’s inexorable decay, he will die in some fashion or other before he has attained the age of thirty.

But, for now, the child still belongs to oblivion; he is but a minuscule, incongruous probability as the horde of humans advance, heads bowed against the windstorm, an upright, stubborn, tatterdemalion herd. Upon their shoulders or on sleds they carry tanned hides and earthenware pots fashioned by their own hands containing stores of fat. In these they preserve the roots, nuts and berries gathered along the way on which they feed, chewing the shrivelled flesh, the fibre rendered edible by fat, sucking out the juices sweet or bitter.
     After a trek of many weeks, they come to the bank of a river teeming with fish, whose sinuous bed unfurls as far as the eye can see across the plain stalked by the shadows of the clouds that scud from east to west. The shadows race ahead, cloaking vast stretches of land in darkness, deepening the hollows, levelling the peat bogs, adding a density to the forests that turns their greenish-brown to carbon black and transforming the stagnant waters of the marsh into vast sheets of glass bristling with reeds that rustle in the wind like insect wings. The clouds wreathing the pristine peaks move on, light bursts through again and sets the earth ablaze. A glean of herons rises from the marshes; the arrow of their necks cleaves the air, the furled wings shimmering against the electric blue.

The humans stop and pitch camp. Some who are skilled fishermen wade into the current that foams around boulders and the tree trunks carried here by floodwaters. The fishermen move along the banks, peering into the depths. The surface reflects their ape-like faces and, beyond, the nebulous sky floating above the dappled pebbles worn smooth by the river. The roar of the torrent and the effort required to see through the surging, shimmering water quickly plunge the fishermen into a kind of trance. Bodies bowed, arms hanging by their sides, the roiling water rising to thighs or waists, their hands lightly skimming the surface, they advance, like dusky wading birds formed by the river.
     One of them bends lower and plunges his arm into the current. In a pool of calm water, near a tree trunk lying partly on the bank, the fisherman has spotted the ghostly form of a salmon swimming against the current, its steely reflections merging with the constantly shifting waters of the stream. With infinite slowness, he moves closer, ensuring that his shadow does not go before him. He lets his arms dangle just below the surface, which so distorts his vision that his hands look as though they are no longer part of the fisherman, but belong to the hermetic world of the river – and he stares fixedly at the salmon’s eye, the iris speckled with gold, the opalescent periorbital scales.

With boundless caution, the fisherman brings his hands together beneath the salmon’s belly and, for an instant, it looks as though he is holding a sacrifice, that he is offering the salmon to the river, or that he is buoying it up in its precious delicate stasis. As his palms brush against the pelvic fins, the fish starts and swerves, though makes no attempt to escape. The fisherman waits, motionless; his palms now holding nothing but shifting flashes of light. Once again, he moves his hands so that they are under the salmon; this time the fish allows him to stroke its belly, even lift it, and it is only as its dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water that it violently twists and turns in an effort to escape.
     But the fisherman’s hands have closed around it; with a powerful flick, he lifts the fish out of the water and tosses it into the air towards the bank, where a number of children are waiting, armed with hazel wands whose ends have been sharpened to a point. One of them, a hirsute little girl who is blind in one eye, rushes towards the salmon, which is floundering on the gravel. Crouching down, she holds it still with one hand and thrusts the pointed stick through its gills until it emerges from its mouth. Vainly it opens and closes its lower jaw, as the little girl holds the impaled fish at arm’s length, its body gleaming in the sunlight.

Hunkered on the gravel bank, the women gut the salmon caught by the fishermen. The dark skin of their hands is spangled with fish scales as they insert a sharpened flint into the anus, make an incision along the abdomen, hook their index and middle fingers into the opening to clean out the cavity. They pull out a small pile of reddish-brown entrails which they toss onto the ground with a flick of the wrist. The little one-eyed girl standing near them is watching intently. From between two stones, she picks up a swim bladder, gazes for a moment at its iridescent whiteness, then bursts it between her fingers.
     From a framework of branches, the women suspend an animal hide which they fill with water and large pebbles that they have heated in the glowing embers of the fire. To this, they add freshwater mussels collected by the children, some tubers, herbs that were gathered and dried the previous summer, and lastly the fish whose flesh quickly begins to flake. Before long, the fragrant steam from the bubbling broth pervades the placid, blue-tinged riverbank.

(...)

After several years of absence, a man reappears in the life of a woman and their young son. Intent on being a family again, he drives them to Les Roches, a dilapidated house in the mountains, where the man grew up with his own ruthless father. While the mother watches the passing days with apprehension, the son discovers the enchantment of nature, savage and bewitching. As the father’s hold over them intensifies, the return to their previous life and home seems increasingly impossible. Haunted by his past and consumed with jealousy, the man slowly sinks into madness and his son has no choice but to challenge his father in an attempt to save something of their humanity. Written in flawless, cinematic prose and brilliantly translated by Frank Wynne, The Son of Man is an exceptional novel of nature and wildness that traces how violence is inherited from one generation to the next, and a blistering examination of how families fold together and break apart under duress.

 ‘We are in rural gothic horror/thriller territory, but the novel is lifted above its genre by Del Amo’s literary artfulness…. It is luridly visceral stuff … powerfully evocative. Del Amo is a writer like no other.’
David Mills, The Times

‘[Readers] will leave suitably shaken by this skilfully woven tale from one of France’s most exciting writers.’
— Liam Bishop, Times Literary Supplement

The Son of Man is an astonishing book. Beautifully written, devastating at times, and relentless, but unforgettable.’
— Michael Magee, author of Close to Home

The Son of Man is an explosion, a shout. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is a storming talent; here are words which are forged rather than written, smeared with blood.’
— Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters

‘An exquisite and mesmerizing novel, in which violence constantly threatens to break the surface. The precision and detail of the prose imprints on the mind like a photograph.’
— Isabella Hammad, author of Enter Ghost

The Son of Man demands a fearless kind of reading. It combines the impassive eye of a naturalist regarding their object of study, with the fierce revolt of that which is scrutinised, and resists being catalogued and known. Del Amo reaches into atavistic territories of impulse, desire, violence and repetition, and refuses to domesticate through conclusion. I was mesmerised by this formidable tale of a son and a mother who come up against both the law of the father and the lawlessness of nature’
— Daisy Lafarge, author of Lovebug

‘The theme of transmission between father and son is at the heart of the novel. It is marked by a macabre determinism, everything is already played for, poisoned. A wandering insane grandfather casts a shadow and bad luck ricochets on his descendants. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo does not shy away from showing the atrocious. He has several strings to his hunter’s bow; an art of careful framing, of scenic observation. A taste for the primeval drive mixed with intuitions and perceptions.… There are many magnificent scenes, such as the son swimming in the river with his mother. Brief moments of light amidst the darkness and a fear so intense you could cut it with a knife.'
Le Figaro Littéraire

‘With The Son of Man, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo focuses intensely on the imperceptible tipping point in violence.... [A] horror reminiscent of The Shining in this huis clos with an open sky.’
— Elle Magazine

‘In The Son of Man the simple plot becomes as complex as the psychology of these human beasts. The writing is never precious, always precise. As the tension mounts, the sentences become longer and meandering, elusive like erupting violence. Rarely has a 39-year-old author hit the right notes so perfectly in the way he stretches his fiction.’
Le Monde

‘Jean-Baptiste Del Amo signs here a story of rare power that does not let go of the reader until the last page. The writing is dazzling. One of the most brilliant authors of his generation.’
— RTL

Praise for Animalia

‘If EM Cioran, the great Romanian philosopher of the bleak, had been a novelist, Animalia is the kind of novel he would have produced [and] it is likely to be hailed as a modern classic.’
— Ian Sansom, Guardian

‘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.’
— David Mills, Sunday Times

‘Del Amo has Flaubert’s flair for performance ... His prose leaps out at the reader, gleaming with perfection.’
— Ankita Chakraborty, New York Times Book Review 

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. His fourth novel, Animalia, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Frank Wynne’s translation in 2019, was a TLS Book of the Year 2019 and won the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize. The Son of Man, first published by Gallimard in 2021, is his second novel to be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Frank Wynne has translated works by authors including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Virginie Despentes and Mathias Enard. His work has earned many awards, including the IMPAC Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Premio Valle Inclán and the International Dublin Literary Award.