Grove Atlantic, 2019. $27, 384 pages.
Many characters populate Del Amo’s arresting saga of the toll taken by incest, autism, Catholic shame, and war on four generations of pig farmers, but the main character is the muddy, rot-infested, slurry-soaked landscape surrounding Puy-Larroque in southwest France. The book churns with intense sensory descriptions of the smells and sights that signal death and birth and endure through the decades. Del Amo’s fecund prose reads at times like Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest on acid, an everyday pastoral despair turned into a nightmare of naturalism.
The characters are haunted by the stink of pigs. It comes to them in dreams and emanates from their own pores, “a stench that rises from buried worlds as through a rip in the earth, in memory, in time: a smell of mire, of silt, of Archaean lava, of fossil layers, the foul smell of sickly, putrid wombs.”
Animalia opens on the farm at the turn of the twentieth century, where a sickly, unhappy couple introduces their dirty world to a daughter named Éléonore, who becomes infatuated with a cousin, Marcel, who comes to stay with them. The mother is referred to as “the genetrix,” later as “the widow” after her husband passes from an illness dur ing which he festers in filth, as if he were one of the pigs. A reader might be tempted to look for hope in the fact that the young Éléonore earns a name while her parents do not, but her future, like the forces of nature that rule the grisly livestock trade, will prove to be bleak and uncompromising. A pious Catholic and survivor of marital rape, Éléonore’s mother insists she should expect to be defiled and bring shame upon herself: “Remember how Eve allowed the serpent to beguile her. He will beguile you too. Don’t forget that we are here on this earth through her fault.”
Before Marcel goes off to the front in the First World War, Éléonore becomes pregnant by him, a fact she realizes while watching “the pulsing knot [and] sinuous curves” of two asps mating. Her mother gives her false news of Marcel’s death and provides cold comfort with a singsong recital of Ecclesiastes. When Marcel returns despite her mother’s wishes, he is a beast walking in a man’s shadow. Scar tissue covers what is left of his face, and he sees nothing more in people than encased guts and gore. Still, Éléonore remains bonded to him, and the two begin to build a family. This is the book’s halfway point. The second half jumps forward in time but not place, to the same farm in 1981, where Éléonore has survived among her descendants into her eighties.
The house is ruled now by the poisonous patriarchy of their son Henri and his oldest son Serge, who lords over another generation born by incest. Serge’s son Jérôme is autistic and mute, and he spends his days snuggling with his sister Julie-Marie or wandering through the countryside and contemplating the warped rules for the treatment of animals versus the treatment of people. “Why is it not wrong to hit the animals, to rip away hunks of flesh, to smash their heads against a wall or drown them in a bucket, and why is it wrong to give pleasure to animals or to Julie-Marie?” Del Amo’s treatment of all the family members is nonjudgmental, and many of them have opportunities for poetic observation on the land that has kept them together even as each successive generation wished they’d seen a way out.
Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque oppresses and destroys the family who inherited it, but it’s a thrilling jolt of life to a reader who encounters it from afar. The writing appears effortless yet impossible to emulate, as if Del Amo were tuned in to a secret channel connecting him to words straight from the earth. Aspects of Anna Serre’s The Governesses come to mind for comparison, such as the young women’s association with the landscape — how they are seen emerging from a grassy lawn and called to the forest, which they eventually disappear into — as does the magnetic pull between people and animals in Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, but Del Amo operates in a register all his own. Frank Wynne, translator of Man Booker–shortlisted books by Javier Cercas and Virginie Despentes, completed the formidable task of translating a litany of rich vocabulary into sentences that sing in a clear, infectious tone, compelling the reader to keep turning the pages in a novel that is light on plot but heavy of consequence.