Monday, October 26, 2015

"A Beautiful Truth" a poignant insight into chimp psychology

I thoroughly enjoyed Toronto author Colin McAdam's latest (2013) novel "A Beautiful Truth". It is a book about chimpanzees, which is not necessarily a good recommendation in itself, but it is a clever, thought-provoking and essentially humane novel that just happens to be about chimpanzees, which is a much more positive recommendation.
I read it hard on the heels of a series of Guy Gavriel Kay's speculative fiction, interesting and worthy enough in its own way, but not what you would call iconoclastic or challenging. "A Beautiful Truth", I feel, IS challenging, not so much in its vocabulary (which is pretty basic throughout), but in its requirement to identify and empathize with another species of animal, and also in its often gut-wrenching (even if understated) emotionality, and in its steadfast refusal to take a moral stance on the many ethical issues that come up.
There are two main story arcs in the book, which ultimately begin to coalesce and merge. One story, ostensibly the "main" one, follows a chimpanzee who is adopted by a well-meaning and kind childless couple in rural Vermont as a child surrogate. It follows the trials and tribulations (both physical and emotional) of bringing up an engaging, hyperactive and intellectually-challenged animal as a family member, rather than as a pet, and the varied reactions of friends, family and the powers-that-be. Despite being thoroughly spoiled and dressed up as a pseudo-human, the chimp is not just a figure of fun, though: his innate joie-de-vivre is celebrated, and his frequent misunderstandings and faux pas are portrayed as both amusing and touching.
The other plot line (presented in a haphazard chronology, which only makes some sense later in the book) involves a colony of chimpanzees living in a Florida scientific research centre, where they are the subjects of linguistic research and medical experimentation. The latter in particular can be quite disquieting at times, but it is not presented as a diatribe against the iniquities of vivisection and animal experimentation. Indeed, both sides of the argument are described in equally flat and dispassionate prose.
The two stories come together late in the book after the antics of the child surrogate finally goes beyond the pale, and he is snapped up by the Florida research institution and thereby introduced to the research subjects. Not surprisingly, both parties are emotionally and sociologically messed up, albeit in different ways, and their integration is never going to be an easy or trouble-free process. The human-raised chimp has no experience of other chimpanzees, and thinks of them as "dogpeople", more like the family pet than like himself; the other chimps just see him as a complication in their already complex society, with all its tortuous rules and protocols.
Whatever stance you might take on the various ethical issues the book embraces, it appears to be well-researched and convincing in its descriptions of animal psychology and sociology. The unpleasant and violent nature of chimp group life, with its bullying alphas, its constant fearfulness, scheming and conniving, and its scatological and sexual obsessiveness, is described in a credible and authentic manner, as are the bewildered, irrational and arbitrary thought processes of individual animals. Their confusion about, and often complete misinterpretation of, the strange human world into which they have been inserted, is depicted convincingly, and often poignantly.
The chimps' thoughts (and, indeed, even those of the human protagonists in the book) are presented in a strange, staccato, slightly off-kilter language, composed of simple enough words but often with unexpected relations to each other or in strange juxtapositions. Neologisms (such as "blone", "plekter", "yek", "skropulus", "rinjy", etc) are introduced for chimp concepts and notions that just do not exist in our civilized tongue, or for human concepts and constructs that make little sense in chimp terms, but these are used sparingly and do not become annoying.
"A Beautiful Truth" is an unusual book, and a rich and rewarding read. If you've ever wondered what the chimpanzees were thinking on those PBS nature documentaries, I think this book goes a good way towards giving us an insight into their world. And it does so in the guise of a poignant and compelling story, not a dry and earnest technical dissertation.

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