Six Questions — October 28, 2013, 8:00 am

A Beautiful Truth

Colin McAdam on ape life, loneliness, and the purpose of language

Colin McAdam © Suzanne Hancock

Colin McAdam © Suzanne Hancock

“There was no human/ animal divide,” writes Canadian author Colin McAdam in his latest novel, A Beautiful Truth (Soho Press). “There was a continuum.” Shifting between narratives about a domesticated chimpanzee named Looee and a population of chimps at a Florida research facility, the book offers a serious exploration of our place in nature, reflecting as it goes on the traits humans and chimpanzees share as apes. McAdam’s essay “High Mobility: In my brother’s Hummer” appeared in the April 2006 issue of Harper’s; an essay on whisky is forthcoming. I chatted with him about ape life, loneliness, and the purpose of language:

1. What kind of research did you do for this novel, and how did it shape your portrayal of the chimpanzees?

I did a lot of book research, originally — not just about chimp behavior and chimp politics, like Frans de Waal’s work, but also ape language studies, which I found particularly fascinating. I was attracted to the idea of presenting a group of chimps in an enclosure, because many of those studies are precisely that: humans standing above chimpanzees, either in zoo environments or study environments, analyzing the behavior, the politics, the jealousies. And I thought, in a sense, isn’t that a novel? Aren’t I, the writer, always creating these boxes above which I study my characters?

It was appealing to me to try and create a novel about that, especially because the chimps don’t speak. The behavior and the politics are familiar but they’re not expressed the same way, and I liked the challenge of trying to express them. But then it all changed when I met chimps in person. There was a sanctuary near my place in Montreal, and I met chimps who had had horrific experiences; seeing the way they behaved helped me refine what I had already written. Learning their stories made me want to try to tell them in the novel as well, which is how Looee came about.

2. Looee’s place in the world is uncertain. He doesn’t quite fit in Vermont, nor among the other chimpanzees at Girdish. To what extent can we choose where we belong?

These are the usual questions of novels, aren’t they? Identity: how do I fit in, how do I define myself? Whether it’s as a Canadian or an American, a man or a woman. We struggle all the time to put labels on ourselves and on others. This is an ape reality. Finding your group is a big part of ape life. It’s easy to look at Looee and chimps like him and say, “Oh, isn’t it sad that he wasn’t able to stay in the wild?” But figuring out how to fit into places where you don’t necessarily feel comfortable is something that we all do, and something chimpanzees share whether they’re in the wild or not. That’s part of the struggle of being an individual in a group. Looee’s story was a way of exploring some of those questions.

3. Your human and chimpanzee characters both experience various forms of loneliness. At one point, you write that the research subjects are isolated but not alone. “Looee screamed with the rest of them, felt jealousy and sympathetic joy when the others had their cages cleaned.” Is overcoming loneliness an individual choice — just a matter of identifying with a larger group?

Loneliness is a huge part of ape life. When you see chimps in a group, read about them being ostracized for whatever reason, or beaten up by other chimps, or even when they’re sitting in a corner contemplating, there’s a palpable loneliness that I think comes down to what happens when social animals can’t find their way in a group. And loneliness is implicit in the human search for our place in nature. It’s also a recurrent, but almost unspoken aspect of chimpanzee research. We acknowledge that we are kin enough to share the same diseases, and that chimps can help cure our diseases. But we only go so far, because we’re ultimately happy to torture and kill them.

The loneliness comes out there for me, and in some of the more benign experiments as well. With a lot of the early language studies, and even some of the ongoing ones, there’s that same acknowledgment that we’re kin. But when the subjects grow up and become unruly, they’re discarded, often in the most despicable ways.  

4. This speaks to the violent side of the book: the cruel research experiments, the quotidian conflicts among the chimpanzees, and Looee’s outburst against Judy, his human mother. But you don’t depict violence between men, or at least not the same level of physical brutality. Why is that?

I had to measure out the violence. I knew there would be a lot of ugly stuff in the biomedical sections, and I thought that was going to be intense enough. I wanted to show the chimps being savage in their own way to each other, to show the violence we share. I wanted it to be evocative, rather than direct.

It’s funny, I was just in Florida, doing a little event there, and I had a couple of drinks with some old guys I met at the reading. They were in their sixties, and they were these sweet guys, and there was a third guy who had been at the reading and who was at the bar and something about him got under the skin of one of the ones I was with. As the evening progressed, I realized I was sitting with two guys who wanted to go outside and fight. I thought, are you kidding me? It was a reminder that when male apes get together, that threat is always there.

5. In another piece of ape literature, Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” a reformed chimpanzee struggles to describe his past life: “Nowadays, of course, I can portray those ape-like feelings only with human words and, as a result, I misrepresent them.” In the chapters told from the perspective of the chimpanzees at Girdish, you use a very distinctive prose; it’s almost another language. How did you develop that narrative voice?

In most treatments of apes in literature there’s either some sort of gimmick to get around the fact that they don’t speak, or else they’re presented as highly articulate. My challenge was to find a way to articulate ape life without using gimmicks or talking chimps.

The reality of life for me, despite my being a writer, is this: my days are dictated by the needs of my body. I’m not saying there’s a distinction between body and speech, or body and thought, but part of what I realized as I wrote this book was that our actions, the shapes of our days and our societies, are wordless. We try to describe them after the fact, we find words to articulate these things, but they come from a wordless place. Finding that place is the challenge of all writing. And the particular challenge for me in this book was finding a way to describe it for chimpanzees.

Right now you and I can communicate in this elaborate way and get a sense of each other’s feelings, but are we regularly conscious of the fact that we’re speaking English — not Turkish, not Chinese. Our world is an English world, and that is a limiting truth. I wanted to look at things in the chimpanzee world and rename a few of them to signal that their world is a different culture. So I very literally raided the world’s dictionaries and tried to find words in different languages that evoked something to me as an English speaker. And strangely I ended up with a lot of Hungarian: words like “urulek” for “shit.” There’s something about that solitary k that to an English speaker looks weird but evokes something. “Yalamak” is Turkish for “lick,” and it struck me as a word that engaged my tongue. Some of it was fun, but the ultimate purpose was to show this difference of culture, and to try to evoke things without having talking chimpanzees.

A Beautiful Truth6. You write that “language is political,” and that “communication is a process of getting what you want, finding your way in a group.” But that’s not to say language is just a means to an end, is it?

Well, it sounds really cynical, but I think it is. It seems to contradict all the poetry in me, but I feel passionate about us as a species trying to understand what unites us with other apes rather than what distinguishes us. When I was reading various ape language studies — especially those involving sign language, where the relationship between the movement of hands and the movement of the tongue is seated in the same neurological space — I came to understand the physicality of words, that they come from the same place as tool use. For me, understanding words as tools is a way of not distancing ourselves from other apes, of finding that kinship more deeply. My talking to you right now is me trying to convince you of my worldview, trying to show you how I perceive things. You can look at that as being kind of Machiavellian and cynical — repulsive and reductive — but that’s what it is. When anyone is talking to anyone else, we’re trying to make them see what we’re seeing.

Chimps do that by grooming. They use their fingers to groom and connect with others, to tell them of their needs and show them they’re united. What we do with our tongues, chimps do with their fingers.

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    “If language is, as they say, the instrument of communication, to what does it owe this property? The question may cause surprise, as does everything that seems to challenge and obvious fact, but it is sometimes useful to require proof of the obvious. Two answers come to mind. The one would be that language is in fact employed as
    the instrument of communication, probably because men have not found a better or more effective way in which to communicate. This amounts to stating what one wishes to understand. One might also think of replying that language has such qualities as make it suited to serve as an instrument; it lends itself to transmitting what I entrust to it––an order, a question, an announcement––and it elicits from the interlocutor a behavior which is adequate each time. …But is it really language of which we are speaking here? Are we not confusing it with discourse? If we posit that discourse is language put into action, and necessarily between partners, we show amidst the confusion, that we are begging the question, since the nature of this ‘instrument’ is explained by its situation as an ‘instrument.’ …In fact, the comparison of language to an instrument––and it should necessarily be a material instrument for the comparison to even be comprehensible––must fill us with mistrust, as should
    every simplistic notion about language. To speak of an instrument is to put man and nature in opposition. The pick, the arrow, and the wheel are not in nature. They are fabrications. Language is in the nature of man, and he did not fabricate it. We are always inclined to that naïve concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man
    separated from language and we shall never see him inventing it. We shall never get back to man reduced to himself and exercising his wits to conceive of the existence of another. It is a speaking man whom we find in the world, a man speaking to another man, and language provides the very definition of man.”

    – Emile Benveniste, “Subjectivity in Language”

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