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Jean-Baptiste Del AMO;

in conversation with Thomas CHADWICK

Translated by Cedric VAN DIJCK

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is a French novelist. He is the author of Pornographia, Le Sel and Une éducation libertine, which won the Goncourt First Novel Prize. Animalia is his first novel to be published in English in Frank Wynne’s exquisite translation. Animalia retraces the history of a modest peasant family through the twentieth century as they develop their small plot of land into an intensive pig farm. Via a translation by Cedric Van Dijck, Hotel’s Thomas Chadwick spoke to Jean-Baptiste about history, writing and the relation between man and animal.

In an earlier interview (and I hope my translation is correct) you said that you have always liked the idea of risking something with each book, I wanted to start by asking what you were risking with Animalia?
In answer to your question, I would like to quote this beautiful phrase by Annie Ernaux, which appeared in The Possession [L’occupation]: “I have always wanted to write as if I would be gone when the book was published. To write as if I were about to die—no more judges.” I also have this sentiment of having to write as if the book in progress is possibly my last. Being in a situation of having to speak—that kind of urgency would perhaps lend itself to the discovery of a truth. But a more pragmatic and formal answer: each book is for me a step on the writer’s path, in search of a singular voice, and must push me to my own limits.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm talks of a “twilight zone between history and memory”, which he argues stretches back through family tradition and memory to roughly 80 years before someone is born. I note that you, like myself, were born in the 1980s, and as I was reading Animalia I was conscious that the novel was set exactly across this twilight zone. Do you have a sense of a “twilight zone” and did the writing of Animalia challenge it?
I don’t know the work of Eric Hobsbawm, but you make me want to discover it. The 1960s to 80s saw the emergence of a social middle class and the rise of the consumer. Eating meat every day became a sign of social affluence, accessible to all. Industrial farming, in particular, developed in Europe in the 1970s and many breeders, encouraged by Europe and agricultural groups, chose the intensive and indoor model. I found this pivotal period so interesting because of the insight it offered into the advent of an unbridled capitalism, incarnated in this system of the production and killing of living beings. Being born in the 1980s, I was of course conditioned by this social and economic context. Moreover, by telling the story of a childhood (that of Jerome, the last of his line) set in the countryside where I myself used to live, I found it easier to appeal to sensations, memories of landscapes, nature.
Animalia focuses on two specific instances (first two decades of the 20th-century and the 1980s), were there specific historical contexts that you had in mind in choosing this span of history?
Before all else, Animalia is a family saga that questions the transmission of violence from one generation to the next. I began writing the book with the section on the 1980s, and it occurred to me that I had to go back in time to understand what had led these characters to this form of alienation. Soon, two periods emerged: one that led from the beginning of the 20th century to the First World War, which witnessed the development of the arms industry and therefore of violence, and one covering the 1980s with the advent of intensive farming. Symbolically, these two periods seemed to me to say something of our humanity and of our relationship to violence and dominance.

What research did you undertake in writing this novel?
With regard to the historical period, I conducted research on how farmers lived in the French countryside of the early 20th century: what was their relationship to time, to the seasons, to rites, to the body, to animals? For the contemporary period, I visited industrial farms and consulted veterinary archives to trace the collapse of the livestock sector.
Few things have made it quite so clear to me why farmers use antibiotics as this novel—or indeed, why meat would need to be washed in chlorine—the descriptions of the conditions in the pig units are harrowing and the horror appears to be something that many of the characters try to escape from both literally (the smell, the stain) and metaphorically (drinking, sexual activity). Yet shit is also present in the earlier half of the book, people living alongside it as well as animals and there is one memorable description of how the manure heap takes the faeces of both animals and men and successfully digests it. Has the relationship between humans and shit changed with the rise of industrial farming?
While visiting industrial farms, I was struck by the fact that maintaining the sanitary and economic equilibrium of breeding rested on the capacity of the breeder to contain excrement and the perpetual risk of contamination. In the concentration-camp-like universe of intensive farming, disruption threatens every moment. “Wherever you smell shit, you smell life,” said Antonin Artaud. It is as if the omnipresence of shit was an unbearable reminder that we are not in the presence of objects, but of beings. By placing farms and slaughterhouses out of sight, we have evaded this question of defilement, and at the same time have made the animal into an abstraction.
Many of the characters have to grow up very quickly, thrown into farming or war or motherhood while barely teenagers. (At one point Catherine is described as being “the age of children exiled from childhood, banished even before they were born; an age with no age and no history” [p. 240].) Do you see the accelerated youth of the characters in parallel to the accelerated—or non-existent—youth of the stock that they raise?
I did not think of it in that way, but it is an interesting point of view. It seemed to me at least that if the child had to have something in common with the animal, it was perhaps an instinctive rapport with the world. But, for the child, this fragile bond is inevitably and irreparably broken when they are confronted with the reality of his humanity and the violence of men.
A lot of contemporary fiction, at least in English, is focused on the perspective of a single character. Animalia emphatically avoids this and roams with incredible skill between many different characters throughout the book. Yet despite the novel moving between characters, individuals appear mired in their own situations even when the future of the farm is under threat. Do you think the novel has a role to play in fostering a collective action?
If the novel has a role to play, it is that of making us see a subjective vision of the world and perhaps of shifting our viewpoint. I have never considered a novel as a means of action nor as a militant tool, and I am always driven by the sole desire to tell a story and to engage the reader. If there exists a truth, whether historical or familial, perhaps it should be sought at the intersection of viewpoints and memories?
Who are the subjects of the kingdom of Animalia?
This is in fact the question raised by the title of the novel! Our humanity has constantly sought to define what differentiates it from the animal kingdom, what distances it from the savagery of animals. In so doing, on the pretext of an alleged superiority, we have justified the enslavement and systematic exploitation of animals, and, inevitably, of our fellow creatures. Homo homini lupus est.

Jean-Baptiste Del AMO, born in 1981, is one of France’s most exciting and ambitious young writers. He is the author of Pornographia, Le sel, and Une éducation libertine, which won the Goncourt First Novel Prize. Animalia, his fourth novel, is his first to appear in English.

Cedric Van Dijck lives in Antwerp. He recently translated two new pieces by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire into English.


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