It is the plot, or rather the narrative excuse for Bruno’s musings, that are the real purpose of this book. The plot itself is not the main reason you will keep on reading this novel despite its intimidating verbosity. All that is just a device to allow Bruno’s voice to come through and blast us with big themes while he takes us through his evolution from captive chimp to enlightened, erudite human. In fact, this is a book of big themes; What makes us human? What does it mean to be human? And is there a price to pay for our evolution?
Camouflaged as the interior monologue of a speaking chimp, what we have is a panoramic view of the author’s own perception of life. From organised religion (“why must these intolerant people be tolerated?”) to ecology (“let the earth die, let all the animals die”) to the slavery of modern working life (“that sweet period of the day interstitially nestled between work and sleep, the precious mortar that glues together these two dull bricks that every day stack up and up and up to form the big flat wall of most of your life”). If Benjamin Hale had set out to write a 576 pages tome of his own ramblings about Life in General, it would have been an unreadable, tedious mess – and after all, there are already hundreds of thousands of blogs created precisely for that purpose, most of which are mercifully destined to remain confined to the deepest recesses of the world wide web. But filtered by Bruno’s voice and as an accompaniment to the story, reading these pages dense with Hale’s own philosophising is really quite beautiful.
Others reviews have already pointed out that the human gift of language and knowledge makes Bruno’s story that of a modern day Frankenstein, created in the image of homo sapiens. Unlike Frankenstein, however, Hale allows Bruno to mingle in human life with relative ease – “So are you a midget, or what?” he is asked by one of the many marginal human characters in the book; “In a sense, yes” he admits. In the hands of a less skilled writer our suspension of disbelief would crumble for the lack of realism, but somehow, we go along with the belief that Bruno can pass as a human pretty much unobserved. Hale does it in two ways: firstly, by making Bruno increasingly anthropomorphic by first having him suffer of sudden alopecia – and therefore being hairless and then by letting him get a human nose thanks to the services of a backstreet doctor. Secondly, the narration is all done by Bruno himself and therefore giving us only a partial view of the picture. One often wonders if maybe Bruno is deluding himself about his almost-human appearance; what are the people around him actually thinking?
Made articulate by language, Bruno goes through life with the perspective of an outsider who is becoming part of the picture. Chapter by chapter, us, the readers, step out of our human nature and watch it initially from the point of view of a new citizen, an immigrant who is trying to incorporate himself into a community whilst navigating the new country’s jungle of idiosyncrasies. By the final chapters however, we are reminded of the fact that Bruno is not the proverbial alien who has landed on earth, but one of ‘the others’, namely all the other living species that the sovereign human race managed to turn into its subjects. Back at the Chicago zoo and looking at his old chimp enclosure from the outside, Bruno imagines what a similar enclosure for humans would look like, and what the information card would read: “…this species has spread to nearly every climate and lives on every continent of the world.”
Within these two pages of made-up zoological description, Hale paints a harsh but true ecological critique of our race, exposing our arrogance and our dominant nature; “Due to its alpha predator status coupled with the ability to control its own climate, the human has ceased to evolve, thereby effectively removing itself from nature”.
It is a pessimistic outlook but one that I share with the author, because for all the music, arts and technological innovation, the fact still is that we, the human race, have detached ourselves from our own environment so much that we now look at nature as if through the glass of a zoo enclosure – firmly from the outside.
Safely behind the reinforced layer of plexiglass, the human is safe and in control: a polar bear who dares attack a homo sapiens will be shot down; a shark that got too close will be hunted down and put on display; a tree whose roots get in the way of a water pipe will be felled. Humanity, Bruno has come to understand, is safe and sound: “Currently, the only palpable threat to the human is the human” .
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