The Man I BecamePeter Verhelst
An impressively entertaining tale about the frailty of our civilization by the leading Flemish writer Peter Verhelst, now for the first time in English.
Warning: this story is narrated by a gorilla. He is plucked from the jungle. He learns to chat and passes the ultimate test: a cocktail party. Eventually he is moved to an amusement park, where he acts in a show about the history of civilization. But as the gorilla becomes increasingly aware of human weaknesses, he must choose between his instincts and his training, between principles and self-preservation.
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
This is Peirene’s first book narrated by an ape. Animal fables are usually not my thing. It needed Belgian deadpan humour to convince me otherwise. Mixing Huxley’s Brave New World with Orwell’s Animal Farm, the fast-paced plot leaves behind images that play in your mind long after you have closed the book.
Written by Peter Verhelst.
Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.
Fairy Tale Series
120pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Published February 2016
Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and playwright. He has written more than 20 books. His work has been praised for its powerful images, the sensuality and richness of its language and the author’s unbridled imagination. His breakthrough came in 1999 with the novel Tonguecat, which won the Golden Owl Literature Prize and the Flemish State Prize for Literature. The Man I Became is his eleventh novel.
David Colmer has translated more than 50 books from the Dutch: novels, children’s literature, and poetry. He has won a number of translation prizes, including the 2009 Biennial NSW Premier and PEN Translation Prize for his body of work. In 2010 his translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and in 2013 he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Bakker’s The Detour.
‘Again we can salute this enterprising publisher for chipping away at our insularity. A haunting, apocalyptic novella, supremely and deliberately difficult to pin down.’ Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
‘While The Man I Became entertains us with the strangeness of anthropomorphism, it is profoundly engaged with the strangeness of being human.’ Lucy Carlyle, The Times Literary Supplement
‘An ambitious and provocative dissection of human nature.’ Oxford Culture Review
‘The novella carries a certain forward momentum: a pace that translator David Colmer brings beautifully to the English. The reader has no choice but to be swept along for the ride.’ Asymptote
‘As the story progresses, The Man I Became turns into a taut thriller, picking up pace without losing focus on the themes which run through the narrative.’ Thom Cuell, The Workshy Fop
There was a time when I couldn’t even talk. Perhaps
I learned to talk and write like a man who can’t stop
tinkering with the things he has found on the street.
The construction grows larger, and more and more
fantastical, until one day he just gathers up his clothes
and toothbrush and moves in.
Now that this story has been completed, I realize I
didn’t write it seeking forgiveness – life itself forgave me
long ago – but because the emotions belong to everyone:
the sorrow, the longing, even the happiness. And what
is happiness anyway? Perhaps, after finishing the story,
the reader, like me, will witness the way the evening sun
can sink through a woman. The glow on the face of a
woman that allows us to see the sun long after it has
set – I come from a family who value things like that.
Stay sitting where you are a little longer to wait for the
stars, which will appear like embers years after the fire
has gone out. That too is a miracle.
I don’t know exactly when – I still couldn’t think in
terms of days and years, that’s how long ago it was –
but the heat made us so drowsy that we nodded off and
slept whole afternoons away in a heap, spread-eagled on
top of each other. We caught termites by pushing long
twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds
and then licking the twigs clean. We risked being trampled
underfoot to steal ostrich eggs out of the nest by
running a few steps and then dropping to the ground
so the surprised bird could no longer see us and would
wander off to find out where we had got to. The sunsets
were grandiose, so colourful and intoxicating that, sated
with shoots and pith, we gathered in a tree to watch,
arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, drinking
in the reds, purples and oranges with our eyes.
As was the custom in our family, we youngsters had
gone out into the world together. We hung from branches
one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes
and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our
bliss was never going to end.
While we were picking berries, one of us disappeared.
We thought he was playing a joke on us. When the joke
went on too long, we forgot him. When the second disappeared, we remembered and grew restless. By the third disappearance we were panicking. Our certainties had
been snatched away. We couldn’t trust our own shadows.
Without stopping to make a plan, we fled, directionless.
Our enemy was unknown. We didn’t even know if there
was an enemy. All we knew was that somebody who
was right in front of us could disappear a minute later
without trace, without a sound. Every time someone
disappeared, we caught that same scent of musk and
The realization sank in: this wasn’t going to stop.
Only later did it occur to me that those who were left
were the skinny ones, the least interesting. My younger
brother had a wound on his stomach; I was not yet fully
grown. But eventually I too disappeared. One moment
I was under a tree and quietly creeping up a hill to get
a view of the plain, the next I felt something heavy falling
onto my back, a sharp prick in my neck. Everything
around me went black. I couldn’t move.
In that blackness I found the others. We could only
smell and feel and hear each other. We couldn’t reach
out or embrace. We were squeezed in, blindfolded, our
wrists and ankles bound, but now and then, for a few
stolen seconds, we could lay a head on a shoulder.
And those seconds were enough to bear the lashes that
Soon after my disappearance the journey began. They
removed our blindfolds and – before we’d had a chance
to adjust to the glaring light and with remnants of the
poison they’d used to drug us still in our veins – the
horse set off. A rope tied to its tail led to the wrists of
the first, who was roped in turn to the wrists of the
next in line, who was roped in turn to the wrists of the
next in line, and so on… As long as everyone kept in
step it was fine, but the moment someone stumbled or
hesitated, the horse felt a stabbing pain in its tail and
let fly with its sharp hooves.
We walked in the heat of the day from sunrise to sunset.
When we came to a waterhole they let the horses drink
first and then gave us a few minutes. The food – something
dry that tasted of maize – was thrown down in
a heap and we had to kneel forward, wrists tied, and
fish it up out of the sand with our lips. If we made the
slightest sound, the whips hissed.
We are a tough family. We keep going. If we don’t get
up, it can only mean we’re dead. When someone from
another family fell and stayed lying there, a rider jumped
off his horse, cut the rope without a word and tied it
to the wrists of whoever was marching behind them.
Don’t stop to think! And definitely don’t look back! So
far, no one from our family had been left behind. We
learned to breathe in a certain rhythm to keep step with
each other and at the same time our breathing became
our way of secretly talking to each other, whispering
Hungry, thirsty, hot and hurting – our wrists and the
soles of our feet swelled. I felt so much like lying down
on the ground and never getting up again.
How do you survive something like that? By grabbing
what you can. Every drop of water, every grain of maize
counts. If someone falls? Step over them, eyes closed.
Don’t grieve, grieving takes energy. At most you think:
when somebody doesn’t get up, there’s more food for
me. Don’t look further than the feet in front of you.
Otherwise you will see something glimmering in the
distance and, with every new step, that glimmer moves
forward and you start thinking you’ll never touch that
glimmer no matter how long you live. Put your left foot
in front of your right foot and your right foot in front
of your left. And again.
For Reading Groups
Here’s our reading guide for The Man I Became, to whet your conversational appetites.
1. Is The Man I Became really a fairytale or a story of science fiction?
2. What does the story gain by having a gorilla as it’s narrator. Is this always clear?
3. How are the humans in the book noticeably distinguishable from the animals? What sort of language is used to make this distinction?
4. The Man I Became is told in retrospect, as if upon request. What do you imagine is the context of for the story?
5. Why are underpants and mobile phones important to the story?
6. In the grand scheme of Dreamland and the performances under the Dome, what role do the bonobos have to play?
7. Is it worthwhile to consider The Man I Became as an allegory of the real world, or is this detrimental to your interpretation of the story?
8. ‘People were streaming into Dreamland for a new day full of miracles… I walked in the stream, protected by the stream, invisible in the stream, going against the stream.’ Could this be a metaphor for the way humans behave online?
9. The Human describes Dreamland as ‘the end point, the pinnacle’. ‘Nobody can go further than Dreamland.’ What do you think this means?
10. Why do you suppose the narrator feels the words ‘Fail, fail, and fail again. Fail better!’ relate to his experiences?
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