I've noticed a number of novels that look at human-animal interactions recently: Lukas Bärfuss's Koala (which I have yet to read), Ulrike Draesner's outstanding Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt – and Bettina Suleiman's debut Auswilderung, which takes the relationship between a human woman and a gorilla man as its main focus. Or should I say a female human and a male gorilla? We have different ways of talking about people and animals, because we classify ourselves as different. Or we have done throughout history. So the question of whether gorillas, for example, ought to have something akin to human rights is an interesting and productive one.
Auswilderung is narrated by Marina, an academic specialized in sign language. She tells the story – not in linear form; that would be far less interesting – of various research projects she's been involved with in Leipzig, essentially investigating whether gorillas can live as humans and whether they have personalities that would entitle them to rights. One particular subject, as the animals are called by the researchers, is Yeh-teh, the male I mentioned above. Marina's first job is to communicate with the subjects during tests designed to measure the limits of their intelligence. The gorillas have grown up in human "families" in an enclosed village, wearing tailor-made clothes and shoes and sleeping in their own bedrooms. Yeh-teh, Marina soon notices, is very ambitious, more interested in solving the tasks he is set than in the potential rewards.
In a key scene, Yeh-teh is asked that patronizing question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Marina translates her boss's joking suggestion that he could be a "gorilla", a bodyguard, with "guardian angel". Yes, says Yeh-teh, that's what he wants. He wants to protect her.
Not all of the novel is about their relationship; there is a lot about the conditions of working in academia, too. The silly abbreviations, the almost random distribution of funding, the hierarchies and semi-voluntary sacrifice of private lives. The first study is abandoned and the next project is to return the gorillas to the wild. Not such an easy task, it turns out. So after several years, Marina is brought back on board to persuade Yeh-teh that moving to an island with a bunch of female gorillas he doesn't much like is a good idea. She manages, using lies and manipulation on both sides – by this point, none of the other humans involved in the project can understand what she and Yeh-teh sign, and the gorillas don't understand spoken language. Marina and a small team move to the island to get the subjects settled in.
The plot is great; edge-of-the-seat stuff at times, and things come to a head on the island. But the two things I find most exciting about Auswilderung are not the storyline, which might well be a vehicle to explore them. The first is the character, Marina, one of those people who has trouble with other human beings and works things out using theory and self-help books, and the second is the ideas the novel explores. I found myself aggravated by and sympathizing with Marina by turn, a tricky thing for a writer to achieve. And although I know little about animals in general or gorillas in particular, Suleiman's depiction of Yeh-teh proves – within its fictional universe at least – that he does indeed have a personality, and on a different level that a writer can create an animal character as believable to me as a human one. The act of creating an animal character (and I don't mean feline detectives or the like) is a statement in itself.
This is an unusual novel, one that is still raising questions in my mind as I write this. It has a lot of amusing moments and even more shocking scenes; the most memorable for me being the night when soldier-like figures round up the gorillas in the village, seen from Marina's perspective as she follows the action on screen, interpreting from a safe distance. Amazing tension and just plain clever structure and writing. Suleiman does us the favour of leaving her questions open but allowing her narrator to develop and find some answers of her own. I want my friends to read this book so we can talk about it afterwards. I think that's an excellent sign.