In June and July of 2017 I volunteered at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. It was an amazing experience getting to interact with chimpanzees – such transparently intelligent and communicating creatures, that are so like ‘us’ yet so ‘other’. There has been some great fiction playing with this ‘uncanny valley’; chimps being seen as cute and loveable until they become too uncomfortably like us, asserting themselves in some way, becoming a source of fear, or even loathing. And there is the horrific history of medical and psychological experimentation on chimps, ironically because they are seen as being so close to us genetically. Four books in particular have captured the tragedy of human relationships with chimpanzees, two written in 2011 and two in 2013.
The first is an extraordinary debut novel from 2011, The evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. Bruno is an exceptional chimpanzee who was noted to be so by scientists when he followed an unnecessary ritual in a human child/chimpanzee intelligence test. The story is narrated by Bruno from a secure facility, Bruno having achieved a highly sophisticated level of human speech by the time he is contained due to his having committed murder. We follow Bruno’s emergence as a totally self-aware individual, following the evolution of speech and the emergence of human emotions such as shame and regret. And inter-species love, a disturbing development that makes the point: “Becoming human is a process of equal parts enlightenment and imprinting your brain with taboos”. Bruno is all too aware that his desire for humanity entails a loss of something precious, and what is central to this trade is speech: “In a way language is an inner death of that sense of perpetual amazement at the ever-renewed world”. The evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a sobering read, sad at times, but also a hugely enjoyable – if you like humanity being put in its place “… for all the sweetness and light of our great cities and great machines and great art, we are nothing terribly more magnificent than apes with clothes on our bodies, words in our mouths, and heads inflated with willful delusions”. And the willful delusion? That we are a little less than angels – to which Bruno responds: “Not little less than angels! Little more than apes! No! Nothing more than apes!”
“… we’re apes and we’re doomed not to know it” is also the thought going through a character’s mind in the next novel A beautiful truth by Colin McAdam, published 2013. Dave is a primatologist who has worked with and overseen a group of chimps in The Girdish institute in Florida for many years. The Institute was established to study chimp behaviour, but as years have gone by interests and funding sources have changed, and have included a period of biomedical research. Most of the story of the institute is told from the point of view of the chimps, both in the behavioural group, and also in the biomedical labs. It is heart rending reading. But what gives this book such tremendous impact is the story of a particular chimp, Looee. Far from the Girdish Institute, up in Vermont, Walt Ribke decides to buy a chimpanzee as a child substitute for his wife Judy. McAdam’s description of Looee’s upbringing is extraordinary – perfectly capturing the wonder of Walt and Judy with this being who is not a pet and not a child – but who is a communicating individual. But you read Looee’s story with a sense of impending tragedy – not only because all stories of people ‘adopting’ wild animals end in tragedy, but also because the inner turmoil of Looee as he matures is captured so well. Interspersed with Looee’s story is that of the behavoural group at Girdish – their power struggles, their infatuations, their tapping out of words to communicate with keepers – at least for the period that language experiments are in favour. As Looee grows, “It was Looee’s first summer that he could take to the next summer – his first really season of memory”, you long for the two stories not to collide. But of course they do – the combination of a tragedy and a misleading flyer with happy chimps in a rural setting on the cover seals the deal. And Looee’s and his fellows’ experiences during their years at Girdish are devastating reading. The biomedical research wing is a circle of hell: “At best it was like working in a hospital where the patients never got better. It was a place that offered no praise.” McAdam allows us a possible glimpse of the unknowable – the outlook of another species – the puzzlement, the aching regret. We read of Looee’s confusion and longing, and another chimp Mr. Ghoul – using his remaining scrap of icon card: ”He eats nine soporific bananas and taps banana banana banana on the cardboard beside him while he eases into sleep”. The novel takes you into areas hard to bear, especially knowing it is all based on actual experiences.
Unsaid by Neil Abramson (2011) is another debut novel, and is written from the point of view of a recently deceased veterinarian, Helena, who fears meeting all the animals she has ‘put down’ when she moves on. So, she hangs around her country property, worrying about her lawyer husband, David, as he struggles to care for her animals. It is a tale of grief and how you can carry on when a loved one dies, but it also turns into the legal debate on non-human personhood. For David find out that Helena has been helping an old colleague, Jaycee, work with a 4-year-old chimp named Cindy. David find this out when the government shuts down Jaycee’s study and she hires him to defend her when she gets caught breaking into her lab to save Cindy from being sent to a dire fate. Much comes out during the trial about the work that Helena and Jaycee undertook when they worked as students at Cornell, where they took part in a primate immunology study involving a bonobo. And the question of Cindy’s rights is argued, hinging on the level of her communication skills and leading to a highly emotional denouement.
The last novel is We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013). This is a superb book that I can’t describe to you in any detail without ruining its revelatory storytelling. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, and structured according to how the young chatterbox Rosemary was instructed as a child in order to cut down on her chatter; start in the middle. When quite young, Rosemary had become an ‘only child’ having lost her older brother and a twin sister. She still feels guilt for both these loses and the themes of the novel are the reliability of memory, how we try to discover who we are and where we belong, and the human tragedy of seeing the ‘other’ starting from points of difference rather than from the points all creatures have in common. The story is set in the 1970s, the late 1990s and the ‘present’ – and plays amid these differing socio-political times. It is a tragic book, and doesn’t hold out much hope despite being full of warmth. As with many books I have read that achingly point out that humans don’t have that much to be proud of – the fact of the book existing at all is one tiny flag to hold up in defiance.
Four amazing reads that make you ponder the behaviour of humans towards their nearest relatives.