Climate fiction has long shown us the future we’ve got in store: rising tides, drought, blight, extinction. Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s brutally gorgeous fourth novel, and his first translated into English, shows us something very different, but equally apocalyptic: how we got here in the first place. Following a family of French pig farmers over a century, the novel opens in the village of Puy-Larroque, in southwest France, at the end of the nineteenth century. An unnamed farmer and his wife, referred to as the Genetrix, raising enough animals to survive. They are joined by a daughter, Éléonore, whose life the book follows through 1981, their small operation having been modernized by the Common Agricultural Policy into a factory farm.
In the beginning, the muck of peasant life is matched by shocking beauty, no doubt aided by Frank Wynne’s eloquent translation. Life on the farm is brutish but it is still life. It is not yet, to pull from one of the book’s forebears, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, “porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics.” The writing is floral and archaic, yet entrancing. As the present-tense sentences unspool, the reader is transported to an earlier moment, a premodern life in which time is meted out by seasons and chores. Roughing it in this pastoral mode functions as escapism until the Genetrix comes across a few cows, whose “misty breath carries… the smell of cud and the methane they belch and fart at regular intervals into the pale air.” Today’s news leaks into the novel: Methane traps thirty times more heat than carbon dioxide; last year the Trump administration moved to roll back methane regulations; factory farming is a leading contributor to climate change.
But before the industrialized breeding and slaughter of livestock can destroy the planet, Animalia posits that it will destroy those on the killing floor. Late in the novel, the taciturn, closeted farmer Joël wonders “whether it was the piggery that made monsters of them, or their monstrousness that infected the farm.” Monstrosity abounds in this rancid, shit-smeared book, yet it is rendered with beautiful, almost Miltonian descriptions of the fallen world—a world that fell a long time ago.
Somehow, over 370 pages dedicated to the bludgeoning dehumanization of eating meat, Animalia manages to avoid didacticism. Though Del Amo did become a vegan while writing the book, he embraces the distanced mode of Emile Zola’s naturalism: dutiful research, clinical description, proper nouns. (Genetrix? It just means mother.) Human trajectory as something created by nature and society, something inevitable. Zola outlined the goals of naturalism in an 1880 essay, “The Experimental Novel.” In certain regards, Paris in the Belle Époque was a bit more optimistic than it is today. Two years before “The Experimental Novel,” the first Universal Exposition brought the world’s scientific advances to Zola’s doorstep. Thirteen million viewers came to see the phonograph and the telephone. And yet, there were social uprisings, a fifteen-year recession. The optimism of a new world was tempered with anxieties about pollution, migration, and political upheaval. The Paris Commune was still fresh in mind.
Modernity comes to Puy-Larroque with the guns of August. The men are called up, the animals requisitioned for the war effort. The passages about their (the animals’) mass slaughter are some of the most disturbing I’ve ever waded through. “Knives no longer cut throats, so the butchers resort to saws.” You’d think that, like those knives, Del Amo’s sentences would be dulled by the carnage. They aren’t.
For a book seemingly about the raising and slaughter of pigs, the first death in Animalia is that of a human. The Genetrix is tending to a sow about to farrow when she falls to her knees. She is miscarrying, and, “gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed in sweat.” She flings the stillborn fetus away from her. The sow, giving birth herself, eats her litter. The farmers slaughter the sow.
It is the first of countless incidents where the fates of the novel’s human and animal characters are intertwined. Not only do they depend upon each other in the sense of animal husbandry, they begin to take on the physical qualities of one another. The pigs possess human subjectivities. The Beast, a gargantuan boar, eyes his captors with the wary gaze of an “indolent, lecherous emperor.” The rest of the animals dream, “their dreams haunted by men.” Humans are described in terms that range from the mammalian (“a mane of brown hair”) to the geological (“belly banded with stretch marks like mineral strata, the sediment of pregnancies”). As generations pass, the farmers acquire “the ability to produce and exude the smell of pigs, to naturally smell of pig.” It’s kind of like when people look like their pets, except this is not a book about pets.
The epicenter of this world is the pig shed, a place that is “simply one vast infection.” But we know this. While this book will teach the lay reader dozens of things about pig farming, its main lesson is one that we already know. Tucked into the classical tragedy that befalls the family of farmers (tuberculosis, incest, alcoholism, suicide, more alcoholism, lymphoma, major depression, more incest, normal depression) is this tidy takeaway: factory farming destroys the farmed, and the farmer.
Naturalism’s force comes from its perceived inevitability. If human lives are the products of social and natural conditions, then what chance do we stand of breaking rank? It’s not fate, per se, but momentum. Towards the end of the book, Joël fantasizes about leaving the farm, speeding away on his motorcycle, in the same way that he’s left countless times before to cruise in putrid-smelling men’s rooms. He can’t. He belongs to the pigs, as much as they belong to him. And this is where inevitability hits a wall. It only lasts as long as the system lasts. Once that system breaks down, all bets are off. Animalia will come as no surprise. It does not speculate. It doesn’t offer warnings. Which is fine, because if climate change has taught us anything, it’s that warning signs don’t mean shit.