Book reviews: The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

The Man I Became byPeter VerhelstThe Man I Became byPeter Verhelst
The Man I Became byPeter Verhelst
What separates humans from the ape?

Is it walking upright, eating from a plate, could it be the ability to smile and frown... or is it simply sipping wine and chatting at a cocktail party?

What seems initially to be a study of the preposterous becomes a stunning exploration of man’s inherent inhumanity in a quite brilliant novella from Flemish literary superstar Peter Verhelst.

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With a gorilla – snatched from the jungle – as its narrator, a subversive, satirical plot that speaks to us of the gross villainy of human slavery and our precarious notions of what it means to be civilised, The Man I Became is a haunting tale of terrible times and heinous crimes.

It is no surprise that this gem, translated by the very talented David Colmer, comes to English-speaking readers courtesy of Peirene Press, a small London-based publisher which continues to make big waves with its impressive and thought-provoking translations of contemporary European literature.

The first of Peirene’s 2016 Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series, this exceptional opener packs a powerful punch as we follow the gorilla's rollercoaster journey from blissful naïveté in his jungle home to the ruthless training that makes him ‘human.’

Snatched by humans who smell of 'musk and flowers’, the ape and his family are roped at the wrist and forced to stumble through heat from sunrise to sunset. Some die, some survive but there is no time to grieve because ‘grieving takes energy.’

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A gruelling journey across the sea takes them to a New World where - shaved, blow-dried and clothed - they are humanised and put to the ultimate test... simultaneously conversing, smiling and drinking a glass of wine in the social milieu of a grotesque cocktail party.

Those whose humanisation is deemed successful are moved to Dreamland where they perform bizarre shows based on their real life in the natural world. Those who fail are ‘donated’ to the great white shark family, Dreamland’s ‘maritime cleaning crew.’

Initially a star pupil, our gorilla grows increasingly disillusioned by small acts of human cruelty and unkindness... but there can be no going back.

The dystopian world created by Verhelst in this surreal, darkly comic satire is all the more disturbing for its subtle exposure of human nature’s vulnerability to corruption and our confused and sometimes arrogant perceptions of what it means to be civilised.

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Much of the fast-paced action is played out in Dreamland, an amusement park that melds the gaudier elements of Disneyland with the brutal animal baiting excesses of the notorious games in Ancient Rome.

The capture and suffering of the gorillas in Africa has uncomfortable echoes of the slave trade whilst also focusing attention on the ongoing threat to the world's most endangered animals.

Short in length – only 120 pages – this is yet a story that speaks volumes and invites a fascinating reappraisal of its imagery and themes long after the last page has turned.

A superb addition to Peirene’s classy stable.

(Peirene, paperback, £12)