Up until a young Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees stripping bark off twigs to “fish” for termites, the ability to make tools is what distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. In 1960, the untrained Goodall sent a telegram to her mentor Louis Leakey with news of her discovery, unsure how to document it. Leakey replied, “”We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.”
In his debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin Hale opts for the latter definition, drawing out the tale of Bruno, a young, preternaturally-gifted chimpanzee who is taken from Lincoln Zoo by a young primatologist (in appearance and experience not unlike Goodall) for the purpose of teaching him language.
Lydia succeeds beyond her wildest dreams, and in the process becomes Bruno’s love obsession. He not only acquires the ability to speak, but also to read and paint. His discovery of human culture (sometimes described in painstakingly overblown passages) leads to a craving to shed his “chimpness,” which he does right along with the body hair that he conveniently loses as a result of alopecia.
In the character of Bruno, Hale exercises the notion that we can reduce all experience to the human experience, and further, that as humans, our ability to speak gives us license to invent ourselves. This is evidenced in the puffed-up, human pride that Bruno demonstrates when he says, “I wrote myself into the world. With my own hand I reached into the cunt of the cosmos and dragged myself kicking and screaming out – HELLO WORLD…IT’S ME, BRUNO, THE BOURGEOIS APE.”
As he dictates his memoir to an amanuensis, the silent Gwen, we share in Bruno’s evolution as he goes from lab animal to coddled pet, from autodidact to fugitive Shakespearian actor; truly a Renaissance chimp who discovers the world as if it were new, all the while wagging his “long purple finger” (an overused description) at the “…humiliation that humans feel when confronted with the realization that they are not so fucking special.”
Time for full disclosure. I spent three years working at a sanctuary home for 15 former biomedical laboratory chimpanzees. Because baby and adolescent chimps are what we see most of in entertainment, full-grown chimps can appear gorilla-like to those unfamiliar with how large they can become. For a story like this to work, there has to be an acceptance of some realistic parameters. It grates that Hale has not done his due diligence. For example, Lydia is forever carrying adolescent Bruno around on her hip but unless she’s superwoman, how is she able to lift some 50 kilos? Bruno also seems sexually mature at an extremely early age. Is this literary license or sloppy research?
Bruno acquires human ways but what he becomes is a caricature of an educated human, so affected and foppish that his ramblings bury the reader under an avalanche of endless lists and overwritten descriptions (e.g. three pages on department store mannequins). Then there are the strange lapses. Bruno can reel off the names of Greek gods with ease but in the same paragraph marijuana joint is a ‘lumpy white cigarette’!
It’s a pity because Hale’s story is intriguing and he’s a gifted writer (though desperately in need of a good editor). There are endless examples of fine narrative and interesting characters but these are soon lost as the reader slogs through 560 pages of Bruno’s highly-eventful life.
Ultimately, the book’s fatal flaw is that Hale confuses education and intelligence with humanity. Bruno is extraordinary as a chimp in human dress but as a man, he is a blowhard who rapes, connives, steals and murders.
Oh, wait a minute. Maybe Bruno does become human after all.
Gina Roitman, author of Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth has had her work air on CBC Radio and appear in The Globe and Mail, mRb, and carte-blanche. Currently, she is completing a documentary, “My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me” for release in Fall, 2011.