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Animalia
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Republic of Consciousness Prize > 2020 RoC longlist: Animalia

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message 1: by Paul (last edited Jan 25, 2020 11:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del-Amo, tr. Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/book...

From the judges:

Frank Wynne - one of the best translators working today - does a masterful job of capturing Jean-Baptiste Del-Amo’s rich, lyrical and inventive style as he explores the (mis)fortunes of a peasant farming family in France across five generations, against a backdrop of war, economic disaster and industrialisation. This is no pastoral - it is a savage and brutal book, replete with sex and violence, which is also spellbinding, strange and immersive.


Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments I was astonished this wasn't on the Man Booker International longlist - I had expected it to win. One of my favourite books of 2019 for the stunning earthy language.

Oddly though not the book I expected to see Fitzcarraldo enter for the RoC


WndyJW | 4631 comments I have mixed feelings about ordering this book. I’m not averse to unpleasantness, but I need to read so many of last year’s books that I need to decide if each book I get this year is a must-read.


Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments It was a 5 star must read for me. But GY wasn't so impressed I recall.

There is a reasonably lengthy preview on the Fitzcarraldo page (as for all their books) to give a flavour:

https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/book... (select Read Preview)


WndyJW | 4631 comments It was Fitzcarraldo’s summary that made me interested.


message 6: by Tracy (last edited Jan 25, 2020 09:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tracy (tstan) | 319 comments Wendy, this is available in the US through Grove Press. I got my copy at my favorite independent- who carry Fitzcarraldo books, too..


WndyJW | 4631 comments Hmm, I like this cover better, but I love the blue covers together on my shelf. Of course the price is much better and Grove Atlantic is a US subsidiary. Thanks Tracy, this might be the nudge I need.


Neil | 1867 comments I thought this one was excellent - basically for the reason Paul mentions above i.e. the language.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments The writing is earthy, scatalogically, viscerally evocative – I am not sure I have read many books where the effect of the writing goes beyond mental images to almost physical impact.

But it is also, particularly in the first part, written in a style which can only be described as florid (excessively elaborate) and complex, using English vocabulary the meaning of which I found myself having to check.

That first part is narrated by an unknown omniscient narrator (the start of the third part initially seemed to imply to me that the first two parts might be narrated by the elderly Eleonore to her great grandson Jerome, but I changed my view on this as I carried on reading). Given the narrator does not seem to be a particular character looking back, and given the use of a continuous present tense, and that passages are described alongside characters being described as watching or observing, then I can only really see the passages as representing those same characters viewpoints.

Now it is very difficult for an educated, literary adult writer to voice either an uneducated peasant or a child, or particularly an uneducated peasant child, but I cannot see these two passages as representing anything even close to a successful attempt:

Animated by a fragile grace, his fingers race along the buttons like the tremulous legs of a moth, the death’s-head hawkmoths that eclose from chrysalides in the potato fields. Then he gets up, comes to the table and when the genetrix in turn sits down, raised his joined hands to his face, his proximal phalanges interlaced ….

Tegenaria spiders have woven and rewoven dense funnel webs, frozen by the sediment of time, swollen and made heavy as oriental hangings by dirt, sawdust, the husks of insects and the translucent chitin moulded by distant generations of arachnids.


In the third and fourth parts, the writing retains its evocative qualities while shedding its more florid tendencies and to my fascination (given these two passages were the ones that I noted in the first part as most troubling me) I found in the third part, almost the same passages re-written:

Serge sits back in his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his face.

.. spiders in shadowy haylofts that weave webs .. that .. are still there a year, a decade, even a century later, the web a little dustier, a little thicker, a little more forbidding


So is there something deliberate in this over-writing?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments Another aspect that troubled me was the rather heavy handed and far from subtle denunciation of modern farming: if the aim is to convert or provoke the reader, I find this kind of literature-as-preaching typically tends to provoke a counter-reaction in me. A sense of perspective seems to have been sacrificed for polemic.

As an example of the excessiveness is this key passage:

This coldness, this hard-won indifference to the animals has never quite managed to stifle in Joel a confused loathing that cannot be put into words, the impression – and, as he grew, the conviction – that there is a glitch – one in which pig rearing is at the heart of some much greater disturbance beyond his comprehension, like some machine that it unpredictable, out of kilter, by its nature uncontrollable, whose misaligned cogs are crushing them, spilling out into their lives, beyond their borders, the piggery as the cradle of their barbarism and that of the whole world.


Now in among the descriptions of the natural world, this section features both a grass snake (at two metres) and a male domesticated pig (at four metres) that seem to mirror the excessiveness of the writing – so again I ask is this deliberate?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments Paul wrote: "It was a 5 star must read for me. But GY wasn't so impressed I recall."

It was four stars for me - the two aspects which prevented it being 5* I have described above.


WndyJW | 4631 comments The animated by fragile grace...paragraph feels contrived to impress, I can envision the subject nervously running his fingers up and down his buttons like a fluttering moth, so nothing is gained by moving from to genus to family; tegenaria spiders paragraph is unnecessarily descriptive. I think I can pass on this book.


message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments That would be a shame - the prose here was the best I encountered in 2019. The second paragraph for example in original and translation:

De retour des champs, il se déchausse, prenant appui contre l’encadrement de la porte, décrotte avec soin ses souliers, puis s’arrête sur le pas de la pièce où il hume l’air moite, l’haleine des bêtes, les senteurs rébarbatives de ragoût et de soupe qui embuent les fenêtres, comme il s’est tenu enfant, attendant que sa mère lui fasse signe de prendre place autour de la table, ou que son père le rejoigne et le presse d’une bourrade dans l’épaule. Son corps long et maigre se courbe et prend à la base de la nuque un angle insolite. Son cou, si tanné qu’il ne pâlit pas même l’hiver, reste gainé d’un cuir boucané, crasseux, et semble brisé. La première vertèbre, pareille à un kyste osseux, saille entre les épaules. Il retire le chapeau informe, découvrant son crâne déjà chauve, tavelé par le soleil, le retient un instant entre ses mains, cherchant peut-être à se ressouvenir du geste qu’il lui faut désormais accomplir, ou espérant encore l’ordre de cette mère depuis longtemps morte, ravalée et digérée par la terre. Devant le silence obstiné de l’épouse, il finit par se résoudre à avancer, traînant avec lui sa puanteur et la puanteur des bêtes, jusqu’au lit clos dont il tire la porte. Assis au bord du matelas, ou prenant de nouveau appui sur le panneau de bois ouvragé, il déboutonne entre deux quintes de toux sa chemise poisseuse. Le jour fini, il ne peut plus supporter, non le poids de son corps dont la maladie a soigneusement rongé les graisses et les chairs, mais sa seule verticalité, et semble risquer à tout instant de s’abattre, de chuter comme une feuille, balayant d’abord l’air confiné de la chambre, de droite à gauche et de gauche à droite, avant de se poser simplement sur le sol ou de glisser sous le lit.

Sur le feu, dans un chaudron en fonte, l’eau a fini de chauffer et la génitrice tend à Éléonore le broc d’eau froide.

Coming home from the fields, he leans against the door frame and removes his boots, carefully scraping the mud off the soles, then stops on the threshold and inhales the damp air, the breath of the animals, the unpleasant smells of the ragout and the soup that mist the windows, just as he stood as a child, waiting for his mother to beckon him to the table, or for his father to come and hurry him along with a dig in the shoulder. At the nape of his neck, his long, lean body curves and takes a curious angle. A neck so bronzed that even in winter it does not pale, but looks as though it is covered by grimy, cracked leather and seems broken. The first vertebra protrudes from between the shoulder blades like a bony cyst. He takes off his shapeless hat, revealing a pate already bald and freckled by the sun, holds it in his hands for a moment, perhaps trying to remember what he should do next, perhaps waiting for a command from that same mother, long since dead, swallowed and consumed by the earth. Faced with the wife’s determined silence, he finally decides to step inside, trailing his own stench and the stench of the animals as far as the box-bed, and pulls the door open. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, or leaning against the carved wood, he unbuttons his rancid shirt between fits of coughing. At day’s end, what he cannot bear is not the weight of a body which disease has painstakingly stripped of fat and muscle, but his own verticality; at any moment it looks as though he might collapse, might fall like a leaf, fluttering in the musty air of the room, right to left, left to right, before settling on the floor or sliding under the bed


message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments The one issue I did have was a pet peeve of mine.

I'm not a big fan of novelists creating a story where the reader is left to construct their own family tree and having to fill it in with clues as the novel progresses. Or if they are doing it, I'd rather they had the answer in the back, as I find it distracts from the prose, which is a particular pity here given it is so magnificent.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments "He cannot bear ... his own verticality"? A common complaint among peasants I believe.


message 16: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments If authors wrote books as most characters actually think/speak there wouldn't be much to note in literary fiction.


message 17: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1867 comments I am with Paul on this one. It's not a peasant character who says that, it is the author writing about a peasant character. You don't have to make all your descriptive text fit with the character you are describing! Isn't part of the purpose of the narrative to give us insight into a character's internal workings that maybe that character couldn't actually voice themself?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments Well I think its clearly (as I explained above) the peasant's thoughts - that's the sense in which the passage is written. so I have to disagree.

And how does ""when the genetrix in turn sits down, raised his joined hands to his face, his proximal phalanges interlaced" give us any insights into a character's internal workings, rather than the author's and translators grasp of their native language?

And as I said in my note I think there is something deeper going on when the same passage is rendered so differently as "steepled his fingers" later on


message 19: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1867 comments OK - I didn't read back far enough! I guess we'd need to talk to the author or translator about those bits, but you would think there must be something going on for them to be so similar but so different.


WndyJW | 4631 comments I need more information; Paul, Gumble’s Yard, please continue your debate.


message 21: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments It makes an interesting contrast with El Llano in Flames. As I understand it, one of Rulfo’s advances at the time was to give realistic voice to the inhabitants of the llano, rather than their stories being narrated by an educated and paternalistic narrator.

In Animalia, while representing the thoughts of a family of relatively uneducated farmers, the narration is highly lyrical.


Tommi | 490 comments The first section of the novel is set in 1898–1914, and I take Del Amo’s prose / Wynne’s translation to reflect that period to some extent – “Written in shifting prose that reflects the passage of time” says the back cover – so the narrator’s sophisticated vocabulary and syntax would resemble e.g. Henry James, in comparison to the later sections of the novel (1981) where the prose is arguably simpler. This feat makes me admire the novel even more, and I’m happy to see this get some prize recognition since I listed it as my favorite novel from last year.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 521 comments I read this last year, because Paul's review was so compelling, and really enjoyed it.


message 24: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3122 comments Mod
I have now read the first two thirds of this book, and so far I am very impressed. Will say more when I have finished.


message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments I think the language is stunning (although I accept Graham's reservation that the narrator is more eloquent than the characters would likely be in reality)


WndyJW | 4631 comments I hope my copy arrives soon!


message 27: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1016 comments I'm not sure whether to buy this one or not. The subject matter repels me, although I accept that the author doesn't approve of concentration camps for pigs either.


message 28: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3122 comments Mod
Val, I think you should. I had similar reservations but I found it compelling - not a comfortable read but a very impressive book.


message 29: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val | 1016 comments Thanks Hugh. I probably will buy it eventually, but don't think I could face it right now.


WndyJW | 4631 comments Paul wrote: "I think the language is stunning (although I accept Graham's reservation that the narrator is more eloquent than the characters would likely be in reality)"

Isn’t that the case in much of literary fiction? Few people say “one,” they say “you,” and if we each had a £ or $ for every time we read “albeit” in these discussions, when in daily speech most people use “although,” we’d be rich. I don’t want to read casual language.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments This book is a little more extreme than that Wendy.


message 32: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1867 comments The thing I find most fascinating about this book and the thing I still don’t understand is what GY pointed out up thread - the way it repeats passages but in very ornate language the first time and in plain language the second. I would love to know what is going on there.


message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments #askthetranslator - he's pretty responsive on twitter @terribleman


message 34: by Ella (new) - added it

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
I say "albeit" more in conversation than writing b/c I always think I've misspelled it.

But I write "one" (and think it, then trade it out for 'you') far more often than I'd say it. I would feel strange saying "thus" or "one" a lot.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5275 comments The real question though surely is how often if at all you would say “I have just interlaced my proximal phalanges”. I am happy to take written and verbal examples added together.


message 36: by Ella (last edited Feb 18, 2020 09:56AM) (new) - added it

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Gumble's Yard wrote: "The real question though surely is how often if at all you would say “I have just interlaced my proximal phalanges”. I am happy to take written and verbal examples added together."

LOL. I don't know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet a fair amount I've never ever said that.

ETA: or written it


WndyJW | 4631 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "The real question though surely is how often if at all you would say “I have just interlaced my proximal phalanges”. I am happy to take written and verbal examples added together."

Ah, I see what you mean, that is not formal literary language, that is...I don’t know what that is. Is the translator likely to know why Del-Amo chose that odd style? If the entire book is like that then Del-Amo intended something by it.


message 38: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments Given that we are having this discussion in a prize specifically designed to reward "gorgeous prose", this is making me wonder if Animalia should be top of the rankings.

One comment I can find from someone who has read the original and the translation is from fellow translator Lorna Scott Fox in the TLS who remarks:

This writing, a bridge from Zola to Édouard Louis, made me love classic French again. Frank Wynne’s translation rivals the original for luscious, obsolescent words.

In a French review, Christine Marcandier suggested Règne animal could have a subtitle in the style of Balzacian ("Grandeur et décadence d’une exploitation agricole") or Zola ("Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille").


message 39: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3122 comments Mod
Paul wrote: "Given that we are having this discussion in a prize specifically designed to reward "gorgeous prose", this is making me wonder if Animalia should be top of the rankings.

One comment I can find fro..."

That is why I put it top of mine, though it was a tough call to demote Patience. That "proximal phalanges" example was a rare case where the obscurity of the language seemed excessive - in most of the other cases the usages were specialist or technical but appropriate to the subject matter. My only reservation was whether I should be recommending a book that describes distasteful subjects in such an honest and unsanitised way.


message 40: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments My other reservation is that it is ultimately quite polemical, although as I've said before it didn't have the desired effect on me, as it gave me a craving for a bacon sarnie.


WndyJW | 4631 comments Forbidden fruit. I had the response to Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. I don’t really care for meat and I really don’t like fast food, but reading that book in an airport gave me a craving for a Burger King Whopper jr with cheese.


message 42: by Ella (last edited Feb 19, 2020 08:26PM) (new) - added it

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
WndyJW wrote: "Forbidden fruit. I had the response to Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. I don’t really care for meat and I really don’t like fast food, but reading that book in..."

I'm not fond of meat and never have been, so I've been a vegetarian for purely tastebud reasons since I was old enough to say "no, I think I'd not like to eat that" but every now and then when I drive by a Burger King, the smell makes me want to go in and try something. I wonder why they smell so good - like a backyard barbeque? They probably have a spray or something ;-)


message 43: by Tony (new)

Tony | 592 comments WndyJW wrote: "Gumble's Yard wrote: "The real question though surely is how often if at all you would say “I have just interlaced my proximal phalanges”. I am happy to take written and verbal examples added toget..."

The whole book was like this in French. I know because Frank told me ;)


message 44: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments There was an interesting exchange on twitter this week with various other translators raving about the translation on this.


message 45: by WndyJW (last edited Feb 26, 2020 01:09PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

WndyJW | 4631 comments I’m only 50 pgs in and the language feels natural, unlike a Pre-revolutionary France adventure I thought would be a fun diversion from our grey dreary weather. In City of Crows a character says that some prisoners who are released from the dungeon prisons of the 17th century have trouble adjusting to freedom and long for the structure of prison life. This is jarringly unbelievable. Prisons in the Middle Ages were not clean, safe, with 3 meals a day and medical attention. Or the thought that a peasant would might be “flirting.” These concepts and words feel very out of their setting in City of Crows, but the formal “phalanges” and “genetrix” in Animalia feel appropriate.


WndyJW | 4631 comments I love this book!!!


message 47: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8548 comments Hooray!


WndyJW | 4631 comments I feel slightly disloyal since I do truly feel Patience is inspired and important and special, but I think Animalia deserves first place in my rankings. It is utterly absorbing.


message 49: by Jill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jill (ninjypants) | 55 comments I’m 64% through the Grove Press edition ebook on loan from the library. I’ve found seven (!) typos so far. They all have been the kind that a spell check wouldn’t catch—“then men” instead of “the men,” “of” instead of “off,” etc. Please tell me this is a Grove Press issue and not a Firzcarraldo one?

Also, I am firmly in Paul’s camp re the ambiguous family tree issue. My curiosity always gets the best of me and I start looking for answers and end up spoiling myself on story lines. I have no self-control in this matter! But now I’m distracted because I just read a long paragraph (this ebook doesn’t have page numbers or I’d reference it, another pet peeve) wherein Catherine is wondering whether Jerome will come to sit in her room or go see “his grandmother,” but Eleonore is Jerome’s great-grandmother, no? She refers to Eleonore as “the grandmother” twice after that in the same paragraph. Eleonore’s son is Henri, Henri’s son is Serge, and Serge’s son is Jerome, is what I have written down. Are they referring to her as the grandmother sortof colloquially because the real grandmother (Elise) is dead?

Otherwise I’ve found the book to be quite absorbing and atmospheric, not enjoyable really but compelling and fascinating. Maybe I’m just irritable :)


message 50: by Jill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jill (ninjypants) | 55 comments lol, only after I ranted did it occur to me to search the book for “grandmother” and it appears they call her that throughout the book. So I think it’s more like a nickname and not meant to be taken literally. I need some sunshine tomorrow, I think!


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