If you can make small talk at drinks parties, does that mean that you are human? Likewise, if you’ve mastered the art of answering your mobile phone, can you claim to be a fully-fledged person? Or is there more to it? In his poignant dystopian novella The Man I Became, Belgian novelist Peter Verhelst grapples with the building blocks of humanity, asking whether socially-learned behaviour is all that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. In a subtle new translation by David Colmer, this latest addition to the ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ series by Peirene Press is an ambitious and provocative dissection of human nature.
The protagonist of Verhelst’s tale is a gorilla who, at an early age, is snatched from his jungle home by poachers and transported to a facility where he is taught how to be human. He and his fellow inmates learn manners, how to dress and groom themselves, how to speak a human language, how to dance, and how to use a telephone. These new men have to undergo a final examination: a cocktail party, at which they are expected to mingle, chat about “this, that, and the other”, and dance with their female counterparts. Once he has passed this test, our protagonist, who remains nameless throughout the novel, is sent to an amusement park known as “Dreamland” where he assumes greater responsibility and is increasingly trusted by his human employers. Eventually he works to train animals himself, thus becoming an integral part of the system that created him. His proximity to the real humans makes him aware of their flaws and imperfections before a catastrophe forces him to eschew the society he has been thrust into. He ultimately returns to more leafy environs, albeit with a taste for fine wine and the companionship of the daughter of the amusement park owner.
Verhelst’s novel is predominantly satirical, presenting a distorted reflection of human society which mocks over-reliance on smart phones and disproportionate emphasis on the importance of small talk. Interspersed throughout the narrative, however, are darker comments on the impact of humanity on the natural world, and the effects of being wrenched from one’s home and family. This last point seemed unsettlingly relevant, with the gorilla’s account of his journey from jungle to “civilisation” akin to the most harrowing of slave narratives or refugee testimonies. The beatings, abuse, and exploitation of the animals on their march across the desert to the “New World” creates a contrast between the base cruelty of the human captors, and the captives’ enduring community spirit and compassion.
The terrifying ordeal of the march foreshadows the process by which animals become human. Verhelst manipulates both experiences to reveal the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of his imagined, and perhaps our real, human society. Whether by whip or by mobile phone, the animals are homogenised. Any trace of individualism is removed. As they become more like humans they also become de-humanised, losing family or community ties and developing into obedient drones. Thus Verhelst questions the development of our society, asking whether the technology and strict social structures which dictate our interactions are what make us human, or quite the opposite. Or is humanity something more innate – something about the way in which we relate to the world?
Verhelst’s refusal to answer the questions he poses is the most fascinating aspect of this book. Indeed, by the end he has subverted the question of whether humanity can be learnt by forcing us to question whether humanity is a desirable quality at all. Though our primate protagonist has developed the appearance and skills to integrate into the “New World”, he quickly discovers that humanity is not as ideal as he has been led to believe. Jealousy, control, and corruption reveal the flaws in human nature that the gorilla cannot identify with, resulting in his final rejection of the destination he has reached.
Although this might sound like a decisive ending, the nature of Verhelst’s prose is that nothing quite feels settled by the end of the book. The short chapters evoke a dream-like state with episodes that veer wildly from place to place, as though we are just being given glimpses of a larger story. In some ways this was a source of great frustration – surely Verhelst could delve into his complex themes more satisfactorily in a full-length novel? Ultimately however, frustration is the aim of the work. This is a book which challenges any reader’s fundamental assumptions about human nature, undermining what it is to be a functioning member of modern society, but which also refuses to provide a solution. Unfulfilling though this is, who ever said that literature should provide solutions?
‘The Man I Became’ is available to buy in paperback, RRP £12. This and others from Peirene Press can be bought on the publisher’s website.