Indra Sinha: Animal’s People

I’ve been approaching my reading of the Booker longlist titles in much the same way I approached my dinner as a child: get through the vegetables first and then you have the meat to look forward to. So for the second of the longlist titles I hadn’t read, I chose Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (it would have been A.N. Wilson’s Winnie & Wolf, but it hasn’t arrived yet). Great! Another boring book about India. It doesn’t even look like a novel: the cover design resembles an exotic form of misery memoir, perhaps an account of life stunted by the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal in the 1980s.

Well: more fool me. In fact, mea maxima culpa, because like Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted, Animal’s People has shaken off my preconceptions. And unlike Gifted, it has shot straight to the upper levels of the seven Booker longlisted titles I’ve read so far, and is one of my finest – and coarsest – reads of the year.

It doesn’t take long to see that Indra Sinha has given us something special in Animal’s People: even on page one, his crippled narrator’s boisterous voice is fully developed and alive:

I used to walk upright, that’s what Ma Franci says, why would she lie? It’s not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man he once could see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they’re not saying, ‘Cheer up, you used to be alive.’ No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, ‘You still resemble the kebab you once were…’

Our storyteller is Animal, a nineteen year old boy who, ever since ‘That Night’ in his home town of Khaufpur (a fictionalised Bhopal), when ‘the Kampani’s’ factory leaked poisonous chemicals all over the soil, water and air, has been unable to walk upright and instead must get along on all fours. “The pain gripped my neck and forced it down.”

Animal (“I used to be a human once”) is telling his story into the ‘tape mashin’ left behind by a foreign reporter (‘Jarnaliss’), and his vigorous, foul-mouthed style makes him one of the most memorable narrators I’ve read in ages, and a vividly painted tragicomic freak almost of the scale of Owen Meany. He has a twisted syntax (“I wake with head’s singing. Still dark it’s but can’t sleep”) which fortunately doesn’t too often come out like Yoda, and doesn’t interfere with the flow of his story.

He lives among a community of the sub-poor, and what keeps many of them going beyond the day-to-day is the hope of seeing justice through the courts against the Kampani for the poison which has crippled and killed thousands of their people. At the same time they are “terrified that one night the factory will rise from the dead and come striding like a blood-dripping demon to snatch them off.” Animal sometimes manages to do the right thing even though his motives are usually selfish, not least involving his ‘lund’ which is one part of his body which still works:

it has become huge and hard, reared up it’s, feels like a log, with each beat of the heart it’s battering my belly.

It’s this desire to satisfy his “heavy monster” which leads him to covert spying missions on both his childhood sweetheart and the pretty ‘Amrikan doctress’ who has come to open a free clinic to treat the ill townspeople (“I’ve been seeing a lot of Elli and Nisha, albeit without them knowing”). Yet despite his crudity, selfishness and doubtful trustworthiness, I found it impossible not to warm to Animal: it’s all, I suppose, in the language.

Chunaram says I should be a Hindu because of all I’ve suffered in this life, I’m sure to get a better deal next time round, more than likely be a prince or politician or something. Trouble with that way of looking at things is by the same logic my situation is the result of evil things I did in my past lives, some people do look at me as if they’re wondering how many children I murdered last time round.

Sinha’s achievements don’t end with this expert ventriloquism. He has an ability too to deal with large subjects – from poverty to ideology – head-on without giving us an ear-bashing, and to make his story invoke sympathy without sentimentality. The only disappointment is what seems like a slight failure of narrative nerve toward the end.

It was with some amazement that I discovered not a single national newspaper in the UK reviewed Animal’s People when it was published earlier this year. No doubt (like me) they’ll all now be playing catch-up, but in the meantime we have to give thanks to the Booker judges for alerting us to this meaty, joyful, feast of a novel, filled with violence, energy and humour, which should without doubt reach the shortlist and must stand a very good chance of winning. And I managed to write a review of it without once using the word colourful. Almost.

26 comments

  1. I’ve skimmed because I’ve only just read the opening pages John, but so far I’m very quickly impressed with how unusual this one is. Yes boring India book came to mind and I rapidly adjusted my thinking. This list is full of nice surprises I think, amazing how cutting it down to the Booker Dozen has honed the quality and perhaps revitalised the whole Booker concept? It always seemed so sprawling and ill-defined when there were 23 of them.

  2. Thanks for this – I had it low on my must-read list for all the reasons you’ve mentioned; now I’m going to get to it asap. Have a good weekend, the sun is shining!

  3. Its great when a book surprises you like this. And there seems to be quite a few surprises on the list so far, books that have surpassed expectations.

    Good point about the 13 longlist being higher quality. I did used to read the entire long longlist, I picked about half, but often found some real duds in the mix.

    I’m a bit worried that there are a lot of first person narratives this year, which dont sit that comfortably with me (I think I’m too me to read as someone elses me!) – but maybe I’ll even come to like the form!

  4. It is!

    Yes I think you could be right dgr, there isn’t a single one of the longlist I haven’t to some degree enjoyed. I think the judges have done their best to include a wide range of styles, from the mature ‘gentlemen’s novel’ of McEwan to the accessible O’Flynn to the wilder shores of Barker.

  5. I’m reading this at the moment and it’s taken me to page 179 to know what the hell Animal means by ‘namisbond jamisbond’ because of the way he corrupts English.

  6. Good! I don’t mean good that you can’t get a copy yet, but good that the Booker has raised its profile and earned it some well-deserved sales! I hope you like it when you get it, LR.

  7. I read Stewart’s review of this, and whilst he didn’t entirely convince me to rush out and buy it, he intrigued me enough to seek your review out too. And now I absolutely must read. It sounds marvellous. I love both your and Stewart’s quoted paragraph. Lovely review, John Self.

  8. “Animal’s People” has become my favorite to win. I adored the character of Animal and am so glad the author chose to characterize him as he did. I agree, a lovely review.

  9. Dear John, have suffered a vexing disc debacle and lost all my email. Could you be a star and email me yr details? indra at indrasinha dot com. Thanks.

  10. I’m on page 80 odd of this book and struggling to convince myself to read on. Did those that enjoyed it find the first 100 pages tough-going, too, or did you love the book from the get-go (in which case I might as well just give up now)?

  11. Sam, I enjoyed the book and didn’t find the first 100 pages tough-going. On the Booker site, I’d say this was the book that most polarized people. You either enjoyed it or absolutely hated it.

  12. Thanks, Trevor. I definitely don’t hate it, but I am finding Sinha’s control over Animal’s voice very erratic, and the book doesn’t seem especially well-written. It’s all a bit ho hum, so far. But I’m tempted to read on if only to discover if there’s a good reason why Sinha adopted the framing device of the ‘tape mashin’. Thus far, the story could have been easily (and perhaps more successfully) told in the usual first-person mode.

  13. Yes Sam, I agree with Trevor (sorry for the failure to respond to comments of late, I’ve been away for a couple of days). I liked Animal’s voice immediately, found it entirely disarming, and if you’re not enjoying it page 80, I don’t think you’re going to.

    As to what the purpose of the ‘tape mashin’ structure is, my copy is on loan to someone else at the minute, but I have a feeling that the ‘jarnaliss’ for whom he is recording his memories becomes indirectly involved in the later parts of the story … though I could be mistaken about that.

    I also think Animal’s People is a good contrast to The White Tiger (see recent comments on this blog) in that Animal is a book which (like The White Tiger) deals with a real and notable issue, but (unlike The White Tiger) does so in an entertaining and well-executed way. Though you may disagree on this point, Sam!

  14. I’m doing an essay on Animal’s People and just found your post here. Really enjoyed your summary and your thoughts on the book. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how different it was to my expectations. I particularly enjoyed your view of Animal’s voice, really interestingly warped sentence constructions in places. Thank you!🙂

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