A prizewinning and word of mouth literary sensation in France, Animalia is an epic that retraces the history of a modest French peasant family over the 20th century as they develop their small plot of land into an industrial pig farm, a chilling tale of man and beast.
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.