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Book of the Week: Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

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

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

Animalia is a family saga, following five generations from 1898 to 1981 in a small French village, as their family farm evolves from a single plot of land to an intensive pig farm, faced with the pressures and challenges inherent to the industrial world.

Set in rural France, the story is a tetralogy, staging human reactions to war, economic disasters, the threat of famines, and interpersonal relationships.

Del Amo has been praised for his raw, intense style. His descriptions of various bodily phenomena, from sex to digestion and including illness and maiming, present a literary challenge that few writers manage to face so powerfully. By reinscribing human lives into the realm of the physical, Del Amo questions the distinction between man and animal, as both live side by side and share many organic similarities. His take on war is particularly interesting as it both reveals the violence inherent to human nature, and blurs the boundaries between elemmentary acts of survival and barbarism: “Since birth they have watched killings. They have watched their fathers and their mothers take the lives of animals. They learned the gestures and copied them. They in turn have killed hares, cocks, cattle, piglets, pigeons. They have shed blood, and sometimes drunk it. They know the smell, the taste. But a Boche? How do you kill a Boche?”. If the motions are the same, there is no doubt that the metaphysical implications of such acts differ. But why exactly is that, when human beings are capable of such brutality and so often react out of instinctive pulsions?

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 — 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

Animalia is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. It was translated by Frank Wynne.

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo used to be a charity worker in Africa, an experience which inspired his first short story “Ne rien faire”, for which he was awarded the 2006 Prix du jeune écrivain francophone. This marked the beginning of his career as a writer: his first novel Une éducation libertine won him the 2008 Goncourt du premier roman, and was shortlisted for both the Goncourt des lycéens and the Goncourt. After spending a year at the Villa Medici, he went on to write Pornographia, which was awarded the Prix Sade 2013, and enabled him to spend a year at the Villa Kujoyama. His favourite themes include the quest for one’s identity, sexuality, death, the body, and the link to animality. It is therefore not surprising that his latest novel, Animalia (Prix du Livre Inter 2017), should tackle them. Del Amo is also a vegan and an activist alongside the association L24 which stands against animal mistreatments and slaughterhouses.

Translator Frank Wynne was born in Ireland but moved to France in 1984. After working as a bookseller in Paris and in London, he began to publish and translate comics and graphic novels. He began translating literature in the late 1990s, and in 2001 decided to devote himself to this full time. Amongst the authors he has translated, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Ahmadou Kourouma...

He was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán. His translation of Vernon Subutex was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2018. He has been Translator in Residence at the Villa Gillet Lyon (2007) and has contributed translations to The Paris Review, Beirut 39 and Index on Censorship. In 2012, he was made an Honourary Member of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association. Frank has also published a non-fiction book, I Was Vermeer.

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