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Daniel Marc Janes on Jean-Baptiste del Amo

At 3 AM Magazine, Daniel Marc Janes tunes into the individual notes of the “nasal symphony” — a symphony of smells — in Jean-Baptiste del Amo’s Animalia, translated by Frank Wynne:

If Del Amo the historian does not overwhelm Del Amo the novelist, then Del Amo the butcher might. If you feel like a particularly grim game of roulette, open the book at random and chances are you will find a sentence like this, on the late father’s putrefying body: “In the faecal magma of the abdomen, a silent army emerges. The commensal bacteria toil, proliferate and transform the guts into a primordial sludge.” Or this, on a miscarrying sow: “A purulent whitish discharge trickles from her vulva, down her hocks, forming a pool on the concrete floor in which the aborted foetuses lie, small sacs of pink, blood-smeared skin with undeveloped limbs.”

This physicality is unrelenting. Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque — the novel’s fictional village in the southwestern département of Gers — spews with pig excrement, rat urine, stagnant water and bloated innards. And yet, for all their foulness, these passages never overpower the story: they are the story. Del Amo describes the piggery as “the cradle of [the family’s] barbarism and of their whole world”. It is the story of an infected society, of the transmission of cruelty from generation to generation; human, animal, land bound in corruption and woundedness. Here the conjuring of scent is not merely an incidental detail: it is central to Del Amo’s purpose. By a wide margin, Animalia evokes smell more profoundly than any other sense. In a novel of 410 pages, I underlined 158 passages describing smells, some of which are quite lengthy, and this does not account for smell-adjacent words such as “acrid”, “putrid” and “rotting”.