I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press . It was first published in the original Dutch in 2013 and this English translation has been done by David Colmer.
I don’t normally read Dystopian, Orwellian type novels with talking Gorillas. But since this book is published by Peirene Press I decided to give it a try anyway and I am glad I did. The narrator tells us that he was living a happy life in the wild until one day members of his family start disappearing from their idyllic home. He then finds himself drugged and dragged out of his natural habitat against his will. He, along with his family, are chained together and forced on an arduous journey during which they are given just enough food and water to survive. Some of them die along the way and the living are forced to march on and leave their loved ones behind.. I found this to be the most heart wrenching and sad part of the book. Their fear was palpable and it was difficult to read about these innocent animals as they are taken out of their natural surroundings, and forced on a journey towards the unknown.
After a long ride on a ship in cramped quarters, the animals reach what they call The New World. They are given clothes, taught how to clean and groom themselves and are given speech lessons. They practice walking upright, which is very uncomfortable to them and they practice carrying on polite conversations. It is clear that their captors are trying to turn them into something as close to human as possible. After a period of time the animals are given a test to see how far their human training has come; they are dressed up and attend a coctail where they meet other animals that have also been trained. This part of the book is an interesting commentary on what it means to truly be human. If one can look the right way, and speak the right way and have manners, is that person truly human? Are a bath, the ability to walk upright and to carry on a conversation really the only things that separate us from animals?
There is one other important social criticism that comes through in the narrative and that is our reliance on technology, especially the cell phone. When the gorillas reach a certain point in their training they receive a phone and are told that it is their identification and they must carry it wherever they go. At first they can only receive calls on their phone and it is another way that their captors keep track of them. As the narrator becomes more human, he gains more privileges for his phone, such as the ability to dial out to other numbers. The humans who are in charge of the animals possess multiple phones and are always seen answering their phones, looking at their phones and talking on their phones. Is this electronic contraption really another thing that separates us from the animals or does it separate us from other humans and our sense of humanity?
The ending is very interesting and I don’t want to give it away. But I will say that the gorilla’s life does appear to have a happy ending. He no longer remembers his previous life and he has found some peace with his human existence. He is a bit smarter than the rest of his family and he gradually begins to realize that conformity isn’t always the best decision; he questions and investigates his surroundings and those who have positions of authority. I am sure that there are additional layers of meaning in the story that I did not understand. I can’t wait to see what other readers make of this story.
This is the first release from Peirene Press this year in their Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series. The Man I Became is a powerful and thought-provoking first book with which to start the Fairy Tale series and I look forward to the other novellas with great anticipation. Please visit their website for more details: http://peirenepress.com/
About the Author:
Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and playwright. He has written more than 20 books. His work has been praised for its powerful images, the sensuality and richness of its language and the author’s unbridled imagination. His breakthrough came in 1999 with the novel Tonguecat, which won the Golden Owl Literature Prize and the Flemish State Prize for Literature. The Man I Became is his eleventh novel.