“Animalia” by Jean-Baptiste del Amo [Why This Book Should Win]

Check in daily for new Why This Book Should Win posts covering all thirty-five titles longlisted for the 2020 Best Translated Book Awards

Jeffrey Zuckerman is an editor at Music & Literature and a translator from French, most recently of Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child (NYRB, 2020). A finalist for the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and a recipient of the French Voices Award Grand Prize, he is currently at work on Lutz Bassmann’s Black Village (Open Letter, 2021).


Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Grove Press)

It’s the words that stand out first: guttering, hobnailed, eclose. Genetrix. Words unearthed from the archeological depths of our own language, some still evincing the crude rawness of their Anglo-Saxon origins, and others bearing the more finely wrought curlicues ported over by William the Conqueror and his Norman men from the Latin realm. Time, these words tell us, is a stubborn thing: the past is not easily washed away by the present; the long branches of past centuries can still jut unexpectedly into our own. The book’s very title underscores this: in French, Jean-Baptiste del Amo’s Règne animal simply means “animal kingdom”—in contrast to those of plants, fungi, protists, and monera. Not for many decades has anyone, in common parlance, used the original, deeply Latinate word, and yet no other word could fit so perfectly as the title Frank Wynne has chosen for his translation: Animalia.

Some authors use their vocabulary as a currency of sorts, a way of boasting that they have certain resources at hand, but what is remarkable about Animalia is how these words are there out of sheer necessity. I first read the book, in French, in 2017, and these same words leapt out to me: toussotant, clouté, éclosent, génétrice. Literally: coughing, nailed, hatching, and the female counterpart to genitor or sire. In looking at the choices that Frank Wynne made, I am reminded of what he told me about how he grew up: in County Sligo, along the northwestern coast of Ireland, where his mother, a weathered and widowed matriarch now in her nineties, still tells him not to bother bringing in the coal during his visits because she can do it herself. And because of this life, he has a wealth of experience with which to fit these French descriptions to English phrasing: candles do not cough; they sputter, or are guttering. If benches have visible nails, they’re not nailed; they’re hobnailed. Insects can technically hatch, but eclose is more exact. Genetrix, though—why would such a word be deployed, whether in French or in English? Maybe because it strips away all the warm connotations of motherhood, maternity, and caring from the fundamental role that women once played and, in many places, still play: breeding, genesis, propagation.

Which brings us to what Animalia is actually about: the members of that strange kingdom, from insects to birds to mammals, including swine and humans alike. It is so vivid and coarse and unrelenting in its detail that one can hardly be surprised to learn that Jean-Baptiste is a member of the animal-rights L214 Association. The wealth of attention that he bestows upon the natural world and the surroundings of the family whose trajectory he will follow over four generations and almost the entirety of the twentieth century is just as adroitly deployed on those bipedals peopling his text:

The pain gives Marcel only rare moments of respite. At best it fades to a dull ache that quietly throbs to the rhythm of his pulse somewhere in his devastated nerve endings. Even in his sleep he feels it lodged within him like a separate organism, a parasite, sometimes at the back of his patched-up jaw, sometimes deep in the empty eye socket, sometimes in his cervical vertebrae, patiently sinking its jaws into his bones, his tendons, his marrow, to feast on them.

It is moments like this, where the humans are barely described differently from the animals they raise and farm and slaughter, that I am reminded of when I learned the origins of the phrase “long pig.” And lest anyone should make the mistake that any degree of intelligence separates humans from swine, one of the most memorable boars, nicknamed The Beast, is made one focus of the narrative, with thoughts and memories and needs of his own fully articulated.

It may be a truism that every human has some bestiality, some animality in their core, just as each animal possesses something of the human in their heart—but that does not make the exposition of that principle any less fascinating in del Amo’s hands. Particular images linger long after reading (especially the repeated trope of describing the world as seen, or reflected, in the eyes of cows and crows and indeed pigs), and certainly the later descriptions of how Serge and Joël run the factory farm of pigs makes it as hard to look at a slice of bacon afterwards as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle once disgusted those who had bought mass-slaughtered meat. But Jean-Baptiste del Amo’s intention has never been to shock or to disgust: only to depict, without any hint of modesty, the full emotional breadth of the world in which his characters live.

If I had been asked three months ago to make a case for why Animalia should win the Best Translated Book Award, I would have pointed to how the text’s beauty of language is a direct outgrowth of both the author’s and the translator’s backgrounds, and of how it forces those of us who very rarely spend long stretches of time among other animals to realize how dependent we are on farming for our daily bread, how divorced we are from how these living creatures are transformed into shrink-wrapped slabs of meat on refrigerated, fluorescent-lit shelves.

But because we are in the middle of a pandemic, the mentions of fever and illness have taken on fraught significance, and that factory farm I mentioned feels even more unnervingly symbolic:

‘What the fuck happened?’ Serge asks, looking at the miscarried foetuses.

‘I don’t know . . .’ Joël says, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Two sows have miscarried. One of the gilts in the first pen, and a sow on her second farrowing in the third pen.’

‘Are they running a temperature?’

‘No, I checked both.’

‘In that case, it must be a coincidence.’

‘We have to tell him, though, don’t we?’

‘Absolutely not, not right now. I don’t think it’s anything serious,’ Serge says, staring at the bucket. ‘One of the crop fields on the Plains has been destroyed.’ . . .

They will say nothing to Henri. Why give him another reason to worry? It is not as though an epidemic is going to decimate the herd in the next couple of hours . . .

The sad truth, as we have come to understand on a social level, is that epidemics are always detected too late, and that their origins are all too often deeply rooted in our breeding and sale and consumption of animals, fostering the transfer of viruses from one species to another. Whether they come from fowl or swine or bats or pangolins, from the wet markets of Wuhan or the farmlands of western Kansas or the rural countryside of Guinea, our tangled and violent relationship with other species of Animalia underscores just how little we have to distinguish ourselves from the kingdom’s other species—and how willingly we put ourselves at risk for our own downfall.

No other book on this list so clearly lays bare the filth out of which we have risen over the past hundred years, nor how we have arrived at this moment—and how we, through our practices and our demands, have found the pestilence of the past still thrusting its brutality into our present moment, unable to be easily washed away by the breakneck pace of human progress. This book, like the Beast that comes every so often to the fore, is quite simply both beautiful and terrifying:

Three or four boars are sufficient to impregnate the breeding sows. One of them, the one they have nicknamed the Beast, is the result of years of selection and clever interbreeding. Never before have the men managed to breed such a specimen. The Beast weighs four hundred and seventy kilos, stands one metre forty hoof to shoulder, and measures four metres long. When they parade him past the stalls to check whether the sows are in their heat, the huge testicles swinging from left to right in his scrotum are like a sneer at the men’s impotence, while urine trickles from the vulvas of the sows as they smell his sour breath. Aware of his physical superiority, frustrated by the proximity of sows, his confinement and the competition from other boars, the Beast can be volatile. He has already managed to corner Henri in one of the aisles of the pig shed, pinning him against the bars of a stall, and would have ripped off the hand he was about to bite had Serge not intervened and beaten him viciously. Yet the Beast is the father’s pride and joy. Henri believed in him from the beginning. When he emerged from the womb of his mother, a first-class breeder, he was twice as heavy as the other piglets in the litter, four of which were so puny that the men had no choice but to destroy them.

‘We’ll not be castrating this one,’ Henri said, pointing to the boar.

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