Bleak is the word. If EM Cioran, the great Romanian philosopher of the bleak, had been a novelist, Animalia is the kind of novel he would have produced. Published by the courageous Fitzcarraldo, this won’t make it on to a list of beach reads. But it is likely to be hailed as a modern classic. You can’t have everything ... Jean-Baptiste Del Amo has published four novels in his native France. Animalia is the first to appear in English, in a translation by Frank Wynne, whose unenviable task it has been to take Del Amo’s original, Règne Animal, and to capture and convey something of its full throttle, bold, dark profundity. He has triumphantly succeeded: Animalia in English has a truly savage quality, all blood and stench and despair ... Just about everything in Animalia is stained, spoiled, violated, dirty and unpleasant – pick a page, any page, any scene, any person, anything ... If at times the book seems to be drowning in its own despair, elsewhere the sentences soar with heavy wings, and so the reader becomes complicit, awakened to our own filthy needs and desires.
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...slows your reading down, immersing you more in the scene on the page, and those scenes are so vividly imagined and conveyed ... a kind of savage reimagining of Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. By the latter part, something has obviously gone monstrously awry and it is not merely wrong but evil. This section is perhaps too obvious and heavy-handed in its condemnation of industrial agriculture, but the first half of this novel is a considerable achievement and worth reading for that alone.
Mr. Del Amo concentrates on the brute physical aspects of life on the farm, describing with stomach-turning flamboyance the slimy, spurting realities of breeding, birthing, castration and culling ... Animalia is not only a showpiece for obscure anatomical diction, it is also a broadside against the horrors of animal farming. But as a polemic the novel is incoherent, as it can’t decide whether humans make themselves beast-like by their vile treatment of animals or whether they are, like animals, simply vile in their very nature ... The relish with which Mr. Del Amo displays his repugnance at decay and all other bodily processes makes for a weird mixture of shock effect and prudishness.
Del Amo’s novel is a taxonomy of sorts: of smell, yes, but also of cruelty and of historical change ... Fortunately there is no question, as Henry James said of Balzac, of the historian overwhelming the novelist: Del Amo’s focus on the family is relentless, and we only witness historical changes in so far as they impinge on the central clan ... If Del Amo the historian does not overwhelm Del Amo the novelist, then Del Amo the butcher might ... physicality is unrelenting. Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque...spews with pig excrement, rat urine, stagnant water and bloated innards. And yet, for all their foulness, these passages never overpower the story: they are the story ... It is the story of an infected society, of the transmission of cruelty from generation to generation; human, animal, land bound in corruption and woundedness ... Buried within the cruelty is a more elegiac novel about the irretrievable past ... Del Amo, working with the history-drenched soil of Gers, has been given mud and turned it into perfume.
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo has written a marvelous novel in the naturalistic mode that explores how the lives of humans and animals are both interdependent and in conflict—it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach ... Little by little, his tale reminds us of how animalistic we are despite our pretensions to be on a 'noble' plane of existence we dub humanity ... Del Amo deftly compares the horrors of peasant existence with that of authorized combat ... Del Amo gives us people who are drained of everything but the will to endure. His prose is stunning from the first page on; no smell or sound or texture is omitted. Despite the often coarse occurrences, he presents a blunt, unfiltered truth, evoking the tedious existence of people with little hope ... As disturbing as this book is, as writing, it is in a class by itself. Anyone thinking about the art of description would do well to read Animalia to see how a master creates an indelible world.
... powerful ... one of the many fascinating aspects of this novel is the way in which a sense of inevitability can loosen to allow for other possibilities and our perspective can be altered in unanticipated ways ... remarkable writing which is attentive to every movement, every sound and every silence ... Symbolism is important throughout the novel and is always made to work.
... arresting ... The book churns with intense sensory descriptions of the smells and sights that signal death and birth and endure through the decades. Del Amo’s fecund prose reads at times like Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest on acid, an everyday pastoral despair turned into a nightmare of naturalism ... Del Amo’s treatment of all the family members is nonjudgmental, and many of them have opportunities for poetic observation on the land that has kept them together even as each successive generation wished they’d seen a way out ... Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque oppresses and destroys the family who inherited it, but it’s a thrilling jolt of life to a reader who encounters it from afar. The writing appears effortless yet impossible to emulate, as if Del Amo were tuned in to a secret channel connecting him to words straight from the earth ... Frank Wynne completed the formidable task of translating a litany of rich vocabulary into sentences that sing in a clear, infectious tone, compelling the reader to keep turning the pages in a novel that is light on plot but heavy of consequence.
Mr. Del Amo’s intensely visual, sensory writing brings to life the physicality of a factory farm: the blood, mucus, gore and excrement are animated, as though characters at war with the human drive to turn animals into disembodied machines ... By linking the horrors of past and present, Del Amo tells a story of how modernity has industrialized and optimized human cruelty ... [The book] invites readers to connect the tangled web of violence, against people and animals—and face the brutality in which all of us are complicit.
From the very first pages, Animalia establishes itself as a text that demands attention and rewards it with visceral prose that doesn’t simply create a world, but becomes part of its very fabric. It’s dense in a way that every page holds its own weight. The dialogue is sparse and comes in only when it is required ... The prose makes you aware of every form of life, from humans to other mammals, from lizards to flies to microorganisms—everything is pulsating, moving, surviving ... Jean-Baptiste Del Amo has published four novels in France. Animalia is his latest one and after having won the Prix du Livre Inter in 2017, is the first of his works to appear in English. It is translated by Frank Wynne, whose work carefully builds this linguistic world in English and never fails to live up to the richness of the original.
... compassionate, lyrical, angry, audacious, composed with a supercharged eloquence, and translated—by Frank Wynne—with dazzling virtuosity ... 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 ... Both halves of Animalia play whiffily brilliant variations on the time-worn motifs of the French rural novel, with its warring kindred rooted in a land that nurtures but curses them ... Del Amo grafts family melodrama on to a visionary eco-polemic ... Yet he has plentiful passages of heart-lifting loveliness ... 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.
This first novel to appear in English from a prizewinning French author is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Brilliantly, lyrically descriptive whether evoking the natural world or a decaying farmstead, the book traces the terrible evolution of rural ways of life into cruelty and abuse via the history of one unhappy family ... Tortured beasts are tended by soul-destroyed keepers in an unstinting portrait of all that’s wrong with modern food production.
Del Amo’s pungent, nightmarish English-language debut describes, in a mythic, arresting style, the bleak fates of a cursed family and the pigs they rear ... The florid prose has an incantatory power well suited to the festering enmity, inhumanity, and majestic squalor on display. This uncompromising vision will leave readers breathless, thrilled, and exhausted.