Genre: Satire, Dystopian
For fans of: John Collier, George Orwell
Translated by: David Colmer
There must be something in the air at the moment because this is the second book I’ve read in a year whose protagonist is a chimpanzee being brought into society and trained to act as a human (random but true). In Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became, Peirene Press have once again delivered another thought-provoking, original novel that you can devour in just a couple of hours.
Now that this story has been completed, I realise I didn’t write it seeking forgiveness – life itself forgave me long ago…
The Man I Became is a dystopian-type novel in which our protagonist is a gorilla kidnapped from his homeland to be trained up to work in sinister “theme park/zoo”, Dreamland. Here all kinds of species are brought to the theme park and intensely educated
(/tortured) with the finer points of etiquette and society until they can become fully functioning members of the park staff. Kept in check by a rewards system, a phone that acts as his “memory” and the chance to achieve “human” status, our protagonist struggles with identity, belonging and the sinister goings on in the park as he attempts to achieve an equilibrium between his life in the jungle and his new life in “civilisation”.
A striking comment on civilisation and society, The Man I Became feels effortlessly written. The first few scenes are quite difficult to read with Verhelst tugging at your empathy as our protagonist helplessly watches his family and friends be kidnapped from their jungle home. However he doesn’t have to wait long until he is also plucked away without any understanding as to why or where he is going.
One of the most disturbing scenes for me is one in which the animals are made to test their newly acquired social skills at a cocktail party. The apes are dressed up in black ties to mingle with the opposite sex and it’s painful to read as our narrator struggles to recognise other primates from his jungle days under their human facades. Yet the weirdness doesn’t stop there…after the apes have proven they can mingle like civilised people the other species are introduced to the party. That’s right…other species; dressed-up giraffes who have to duck under chandeliers, buffaloes with gold balls and flowers stuck to the end of their horns and once-majestic panthers reduced to party pieces. The images Verhelst conjures up are so ridiculous that you’re left feeling completely out of your depth.
When I think about it, I can conclude that I was forced to become human in a very reckless way and that I am trying very carefully to remain it.
As you progress further into the novel it’s easy to forget who is the ape and who is the man as our protagonist becomes one of the more humane inhabitants of the park. The fact that it’s an ape narrating your story falls all too easily from your mind, further perpetuating the question of what is really required to make a “man”.
In parts ridiculous, thought-provoking and often sobering, this wonderful exploration of instinct and identity is a must-read for fans of dystopian fiction. With its theme-park setting and fable-like approach, it makes perfect sense for The Man I Became to be the forerunner of Peirene Press’ Fairy Tales Series: End of Innocence. Also I don’t know about you guys but I haven’t read many Belgian novelists and if they’re all this good I’m going to seek out more. At just 121 pages long, you have no excuse not to pick it up!
Disclaimer: This book was kindly sent to me to review by Peirene Press. All opinions expressed here are my own.