The Violence of the Family is Eternal

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, trans. Frank Wynne, Animalia

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 410pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695579

reviewed by Stanley Portus

At her father’s funeral, a young girl watches on as the villagers discuss what to do about a toad that has made its way into the open grave overnight and has been swimming back and forward in the mud. As the toad sits on top of the lowered coffin, the crowd agree it is a bad omen and the man cannot be buried with it there. The toad, one protests, is the devil. It is decided that the young girl is the only person small enough and in a bad enough state, in her scraggy, unwashed clothes, to be lowered down into the pit to pull the toad out. She does so, and before the villagers can decide whether or not they should kill it, the toad hops into the long grass and disappears. The villagers disperse, and the girl falls asleep from exhaustion, hunkered against the bottom of a tree.

The young girl is Éléonore, whose life from childhood to old age is the underlying thread running through the superstitious, grotesque, and often mundane world of French writer Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia, which has been translated superbly into English, in all its vivid horror, by Frank Wynne. Through the life of Éléonore, and across four chapters, Del Amo tells the story of a family living in the fictional French village of Puy-Larroque and the development of their small holding from the end of the 19th century into a chemical-infested, slurry-ridden, industrial pig farm in the 1980s.

Animalia is not for the faint-hearted – neutering pigs, killing, butchery, and feculent odours permeate Del Amo’s writing. Del Amo is equally cold and distant in his descriptions of the bodily functions and behaviours of the young Éléonore and her mother, who is only ever known as the genetrix – her miserly behaviour barely merits a name. A year before Éléonore is born, the genetrix lies in the pigsty and gives birth to a stillborn foetus, whilst being circled by a howling sow in labour. The genetrix urinates and defecates wherever she pleases. When Éléonore is born, the genetrix remembers an old wives’ tale and makes her suckle milk from a pig. These are the facts of the life they lead.

Animalia resists anthropomorphising the creatures in its page, and instead analyses the characters’ relations to animals. This approach differs to that of another novel recently translated from the French, Olivia Rosenthal’s in her novel To Leave With the Reindeer, which shows human beings and animals learning from one another and dissolves the boundaries between species. Animalia is not concerned with interspecies solidarity, but with how we project ideas onto animals. Having once led the family’s pigs around the farm and countryside with their dog Alphonse in tow, Éléonore senses a friction between human beings and pigs as she enters early adolescence:

‘She is intimately acquainted with the pig. . . And yet the pig sent for fattening, screened from the eyes of men, seems to her shrouded in mystery, a rampant, nameless beast, sprung from legend or mythology, that never truly dies, even when its blood is shed, but endlessly reappears, as though born from the shadows of the sty.’

The sympathy she felt in childhood gives way to suspicion as she becomes aware of the pig’s place on the farm, its temperament, how it is killed, and how others relate to it as a resource. Animals are not companions but strange other beings, at once a challenge to Éléonore’s comprehension and an outlet for her own paid: she strangles and kills a cat as she processes the passing of her father, and the reality of death.

The story of Éléonore falling in love with Marcel, a cousin who comes to help with the farm during her father’s long decline, offers relief to the overbearing indifference and cruelty with which the genetrix treats Éléonore. But this relief is short lived, as Marcel is drafted to fight in the First World War. He returns disfigured, can longer show his face, and struggles to engage with Éléonore. During the war Albert Brisard, skilled in stitching up pigs, turns his abilities to suturing soldiers’ wounds, and Marcel stands by and watches while bodies bleed and eyes mist over; now home, Marcel can’t help but see people as, ‘ambulatory sacks of skin filled with steaming blue, yellow, green entrails, with excreta, sludge and biological fluids’. Having seen what is inside them, he can no longer grasp the human figure as a possible object of desire.

Animalia proceeds less through interactions among its characters than long, sensorial passages that often verge on the disturbing. Éléonore and Marcel eventually conceive a child by the name of Henri, who will oversee the conversion of their small holding into an industrial farm. Under his command, the scent of hay and flowers gives way to the stench of slurry, ammonia and chemicals. Henri and his family live with death, enveloped in the smell of pigs: ‘this stench that smells like vomit, that they no longer smell since it is theirs, embedded in their clothes, their sinuses, their hair, impregnating their skin and their sour flesh.’ Excrement here is an overarching metaphor for the family’s adversities. The pig shed Henri and his sons, Serge and Joël, manage is the ‘anus mundi’ they endlessly pour concrete inside of to counter the gathering pools of waste. The repulsive image of the pig shed is deeply unsettling: the men’s ‘throats prickling with the familiar taste’ of the shed and, ‘their foreheads drenched with sweat and their ears ringing with the phantom squeal of pigs’ – all this feels unreal, unfathomable, but never fantastical. The reader’s infernal journey through the ‘faecal nebulae’ is described as ‘an ordinary day.’

The farm is a bulwark against the outer world and a trap that no one seems able to escape. Julie-Marie, Serge’s daughter, dreams of life beyond the farm’s walls. Catharine, her mother, does too, but she has resolved herself to never having more. Henri falls prey to a madness at once created and sheltered by the farm, while Éléonore, now old, adopts a matriarchal role, realising she was suited to it all along. Only Jérôme, Julie-Marie’s brother, seems content to play with animals and bring gifts to his sister, but trauma marks even his childish world: he bears witness to the violence of the farm, and the other children isolate and bully him, contemptuous of his rural existence.

The industry is gruelling, and Del Amo offers no reprieve. Whereas Rob Kovitz’s Pig City Model Farm tries to imagine how pig farming can find sustainable solutions to its barbarity, Animalia is concerned solely with the psychological struggles the business demands. Henri’s ambition of enlarging the farm – in search of higher productivity – eventually arouses Joël’s suspicion. The battle to sustain growth via chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics embodies the belief in ‘progress, technology, science.’ But this perpetuates an endless cycle where Joël sees himself as a ‘masticating cogwheel’, eating and digesting the pork they breed to produce waste that will fertilise the grain they grow for the sake of feeding more pigs. When disease overruns the farm, Serge turns to alcohol, and Joël cannot help but see ‘a glitch’, where, ‘pig rearing is at the heart of some much greater disturbance . . . 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.’

Whatever they do, they will never break the pattern that determines the form of their lives. The violence of the family is eternal, as is its enmeshment with larger structures, from the natural world to the financial, and with the violence inherent to both. Animalia reveals the endless unease that characterises the interdependence of man and animal, for which no eventual peace or reconciliation seems in the offing. Henri, Serge and Joël may subject their animals to dreadful conditions, but they warrant sympathy in spite of this, as people who must respond to things they cannot control, who fall, and who are doomed to try and live on.
Stanley Portus is a writer based in Bristol.