Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

Chimp lit

I suffer, at times, from mild monkey mania. So I was delighted to find, last week, a new-to-me piece in the used-book shelves at the Center for Fiction: Hackenfeller's Ape by Brigid Brophy (Brophy was 24 when she wrote this, and she raised the hackles of many; she was once dubbed "one of our leading literary shrews" by the Times Literary Supplement).

The book, a "satirical novel" published in 1954, is a strange one; it looks at the ethics of apes in captivity as a sort of proxy for free will in humans, but the very oddness of Brophy's myriad meanderings is a spectacle that makes it hard to cling to whatever philosophical bent she is pursuing. For example, Percy, the main ape, escapes from the zoo and is subsquently shot dead, and the shadowy government functionary who was to use him in an experiment that would launch the ape into space is so monomaniacal in his devotion to science that he skins Percy and wears the animal's pelt in a burlesque that allows him to slip, unnoticed, into the rocket and take Percy's place. And that, really, is just the tip of the iceberg.

So no, I wouldn't say that you should clamor for a copy of this novel, perhaps rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Looking for some good chimp lit? Next on my list is Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore -- though I doubt it has the fabulous illustrations of Brophy's book.