In her daring and disturbing first novel, “With the Animals,” Franco-Swiss author Noëlle Revaz takes readers on a journey into the callous, claustrophobic mind of a brute. It’s a tale whose impact can be felt long after the book is closed.
The narrator, Paul, is a farmer who rules his isolated plot like a tyrant, pausing from his work only to batter his cowering wife, whom he refers to only by a crude, objectifying slur. He pays his numerous children little regard, not even bothering to remember their names and only mentioning them when they swarm around him like gnats, howling in terror or cackling devilishly at some indignity he has visited on their mother.
Any sentiment Paul might possess is reserved for his livestock. Even when considering his feelings about his wife, he drifts to thoughts of his cattle, professing that he does understand love; it is when “you have the everlasting fear something bad might occur to damage her about the horns or make you call the vet.” He hires Georges, a Portuguese farmhand, to work with him for the summer, and the two form an uneasy bond as Georges attempts to bring some degree of humanity into Paul’s chaotic, violent dominion.
Revaz has crafted a fascinating and unique argot for Paul, whose terse narration is a stew of malformed words, coarse slang, and awkward constructions. “Before when I go out in the morning,” he begins, “I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw.” He’s like a malevolent version of Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, and the blunt, unrefined manner in which he speaks is indicative of the narrow range of emotions he is able to comprehend.
Though his actions are monstrous, Revaz does not cast Paul as purely evil, and this distinction is perhaps the book’s most troubling element. “I do everything by nature,” he says, “just like she made me.” Paul is a misogynist, regularly beats and rapes his wife, and indulges in senseless violence — his only means of exerting control over a world he can barely understand. But his ill-doings are never calculated or premeditated; he acts entirely on impulse as directed by his warped mind, and seems incapable of reflection or forethought. “ ‘It’s not right to call it Love,’ ” he says of his marriage, “ ‘seeing you feel nothing in your soul, just the urge to go at her and let her have it.’ It’s Rage or Fury, we should say, or better just keep our traps shut and say nothing.” To hate such a loathsome creature would be easy; Revaz makes him pitiable in spite of the revulsion he engenders.
At times, a more human Paul seems to reveal itself, as when his wife is away at the hospital for surgery and he gets choked up trying to speak to her over the phone. He is clearly capable of tenderness, as evidenced by his kind treatment of a calving cow in distress. “I’m pleased with you, old girl,” he coos, sweetly. When the summer ends, and it’s time for Georges to depart, it’s unclear whether what little progress has been made will stick. Paul’s malignant, hyper-masculine need for dominance remains, even as he gives small, subtle indications that a more profound change may have occurred.
“With the Animals” is a harrowing tale, and Revaz handles the difficult subject matter bravely, never letting it feel exploitive or gratuitous. Paul’s voice, as difficult as it may be to stomach, is powerful, and the author has succeeded in creating a gripping, visceral story that is meant to be felt as much as it is to be read.Michael Patrick Brady, a writer living in South Boston, can be reached at mike@michaelpat