Talking animals are staples of both satirists and Disney scriptwriters, so it seems entirely appropriate that Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became – which features a warped version of Disneyland as a shorthand for the American dream – should be told by a gorilla. (Translated by David Colmer, it was Peirene Press’ first publication of last year). Its early chapters echo the Middle Passage as the narrator and his fellow gorillas, after capture, are walked through the desert until they reach the sea, “a new desert but blue, made of water and stretching away out of sight.” Finally they arrive at the New World:
“Only when then enormous lights turned on did we see the hundreds of people behind the glass walls. Their mouths opened and closed but we couldn’t hear what they were shouting. Or were they laughing? Why were they waving? Were they angry?”
This incomprehension is shared by narrator and reader alike: for both, the rules of the New World will be revealed slowly and often obliquely. Firstly, animal must aspire to become human: clothing, shaving, smiling, conversing – before a “baptism of fire” in the form of a cocktail party. The price of failure has already been made clear: “the thing that looked like us before the shave but trampled down, miserable, broken;” or, worse, fed to the Dreamland Maritime Cleaning Crew, “also known as the Great White family.”
Dreamland, where the gorilla/human will now be employed, is portrayed as a theme park (his first experience is a ride on a roller-coaster), the Disney ‘dream come true’ of the American dream, the apex of human aspiration:
“We are, in a sense, the end point, the pinnacle. And that’s why so many people come to see us. Not only to understand their own history better, but to see how they can better themselves as well… This is where people come to celebrate being accepted into the Big Dream.”
The new humans are rewarded with gold Ds and mobile phones – “each promotion brings top-ups and new icons.” In the Dome the animals participate in a ‘recreation’ of Earth’s history from the world emerging from the darkness on beyond the present into a future in which children set off in a rocket with their robots. This section gives a good indication of the way in which the novel moves beyond allegory towards a dream state that borders on surrealism. The animals enter the show in an order that echoes their appearance at the cocktail party; when the rocket launches we are directed to a girl waving at a porthole, just as we were towards the face of a girl with “the sweetest, quietest, most delicate smile” on arrival in the New World (a motif which will reoccur later).
These ambiguities co-exist with biting satire, as we see when the narrator discusses the cost of his success:
“My schedule was so crammed, the only contact I had with others was during meetings… More and more often I used fashionable words that made people feel they were part of something exceptional.”
The story ends in apocalypse and redemption: just as the narrator’s initial identity was eliminated, so he moves beyond the one created for him – still human, but on his own terms. This gives us hope in the face of the novel’s bleak world view (a hope hinted at in the opening chapter).
Verhelst imbues what could easily have been a one-note novel with astonishing richness and depth, a broken mirror in which the shattered reflection is sometimes immediately recognisable and at others only intuitively known.