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An inhabitant of a chimp sanctuary in Congo. (Andrew Westoll)
An inhabitant of a chimp sanctuary in Congo. (Andrew Westoll)

Monkeys rule, dogs drool: Why the lit world is embracing the primate Add to ...

The British media can’t get enough of a fantastical tale, told straight-facedly as a memoir, by a woman who claims she was raised by monkeys in South America. The autobiography by Marina Chapman, called The Girl With No Name, describes the author’s childhood as an abandoned orphan in Colombia. It says she was dumped in the jungle where she happened on a clan of monkeys, possibly capuchins, from whom she was able to cadge food. She lived for four or five years, she thinks, entirely on fruit. After a while, she says, she began to ape, I mean imitate their behaviour. She was then captured by child slave traders who sold her into prostitution, but by an amazing series of lucky breaks she escaped, then was adopted by a kind woman who sent her, as a teenager, to Bradford, England, where she met a man and married and now lives. To this day she makes monkey sounds to her children.

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Reviewers and profilers of Chapman tend to point out in passing that “her story can be neither verified nor disproved.” None of them points out that of the many, many famous stories of feral children in history – from Romulus and Remus, suckled by wolves, to Misha Defonseca, the Belgian memoirist who claimed to have lived with wolves as a child during the Holocaust – most have been proven to be hoaxes and not one has been scientifically confirmed. But that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for a heart-warming story, a story with mythical, magical Jungle Book echoes, and an eerie reminder that animals, particularly those with genetic similarities to humans, organize themselves into societies and may have something like a consciousness.

Primates are big in literature right now. There are sensitive simians popping up in novels and memoirs, perhaps coincidentally in the year following the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a manifesto signed by an international group of scientists stating that “non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states.”

In fiction, an intelligent chimpanzee with the language of a four-year-old child is prominent in the massively successful novel about vulnerable animals, Unsaid, by Neil Abramson.

In Canada, a literary novel has been published to acclaim about a childless couple that adopts and raises a chimpanzee. A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam is an imagining of what chimpanzee consciousness might sound and feel like, and a reflection on the role of sensitive animals in human society. The novel follows two stories, actually: that of the adoptive chimp and that of a group of chimps in captivity under scientific study, who have their own relationship troubles. MacAdam has a poetic, impressionistic style, and a sense of humour, and the resulting fantasy is convincing and strangely melancholy.

One can’t help but read McAdam’s novel side by side with Andrew Westoll’s non-fiction book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That was a 2011 journalistic account of a real institute, in Quebec, where chimps “retired” from laboratory experiments are cared for. It was extremely popular – both critics and scientists raved and it won the Charles Taylor Prize.

All these writers stress human/ape similarities, of temperament, behaviour and skill. McAdam likes to point out that our genetic material is nearly identical. Westoll developed great attachment to the animals he spent time with.

This fixation with primates is a literary shift. For the past few years, in fiction and memoir, the go-to sympathetic/anthropomorphic animal has been the dog. If you’re reading this section, you’ve probably actually read an uplifting narrative as told by a canine narrator in the past 10 years. You may have read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, or A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron. You may have noticed a feral-child-among-dogs theme in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. And you could not have missed Marley & Me, a memoir about having a dog.

This powerful publishing trend gave rise to articles in U.S. media wondering why dogs dominated literature while cats ruled the web. Daniel Engber, writing in Slate, pointed out that dogs have been popular characters in literature since the earliest novels, whereas cats have been better represented in visual art. His theory is that dogs are companions, while cats are observed at a distance. “We dialogue with dogs and contemplate our cats,” he writes. Laura Miller demurred in Salon, claiming instead that human narratives must be primarily about humans, and dogs are the perfect sidekick – cats want centre stage. The reason for the predominance of dogs in written stories, she writes, “… is narcissism – not the narcissism of dogs or cats, but the narcissism of human beings.”

The ascendancy of humanoid primate characters in stories is possibly reflective of environmental fears – the fear that the habitats of wild animals are being threatened, for example, or that medical research is all a form of vivisection – but not, I think, evidence of narcissism of any kind. It is simply literature responding to new scientific views and studies on the consciousness of animals. At any rate, it is a welcome change from sob stories about pets.

 

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