A Beautiful Truth

By Colin McAdam

In the best known line from this best loved film, The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir has one of his characters (played by himself) declare that “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”

What Renoir meant by “reasons” was love, and in Colin McAdam’s third novel this same beautiful and terrible truth is at work, proving that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

When Walt and Judy, a childless Vermont couple with love to spare open their hearts and home to a baby chimpanzee named Looee we all know they’re making a big mistake even though we can sympathize with their decision. They are well-off and committed to one another, but lonely. Their lives are missing something. In a moment full of foreshadowing we see Judy yearning “like a prisoner yearns for friends beyond the wall.”

Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative about a special institute in Florida set up to study chimpanzees, the lead scientist reflects that perhaps all “his work boiled down to an attempt to redress the unspeakable loneliness of humans.” Temporarily living apart from his wife and daughter he ponders what “solitude does to a social animal.” Later, a vet at the institute drifts into a similar sense of isolation and alienation, not only from his co-workers and fellow humans but even himself. Unable to tell anyone about his work, barely able to talk to his colleagues, “sent to a dark continent to exploit and find information, he fell in love with the natives and became a man without a country.”

It gets to be that when you hear the word “love” in this book a warning siren starts to sound.

Through characters like Walt and Judy, the scientist and the vet, A Beautiful Truth lays bare the “unspeakable loneliness of humans” both as individuals and as members of a lonely species. The beautiful truth, however, is empathy, that imaginative sense of connection that binds us to spouses, children, strangers, larger social groups, and other apes. Without its saving grace we are only sad, helpless, isolated individuals trapped in fragile bodies.

If loneliness and isolation are what define the humans we meet, the main characters in the novel suffer many of the same ailments. These are the chimpanzees, chief among them being Looee. Looee is yet another loner (his name is even misspelled Lonee at one point), an orphan whose mother was shot for food by soldiers, her skull ground into paste for Chinese medicine. Adopted by Walt and Judy and raised as a human child, Looee eventually goes wild and ends up the subject of medical testing at the Florida institute. After a round of horrors at the hands of more lonely, caring, well-meaning types (they have their reasons), he is then transferred to the institute’s zoo-like enclosure where, body and spirit shattered, he finally joins a troop of his fellows.

Anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary on chimpanzees or seen them at the zoo will have noticed our close family resemblance. McAdam’s chimps are like humans in many ways — we recognize their dysfunctional relationships and need to connect somehow to one another — but he’s written something more complex than the usual literary animal fable. The frequent comparisons he makes between chimps and humans, putting the feelings of the one in terms of the other, both connect and distance the two species, as does some of the familiar yet alien vocabulary of the chimp language. In a recurring motif hands reach out to hold other hands, but they don’t always touch.

In his previous novel, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted Fall, McAdam showed himself willing to experiment and take chances with style and narrative technique, leading to some striking if not always successful results. A Beautiful Truth is just as edgy but is a more sure-handed and mature work, expertly weaving together shifts in voice and point of view and making use of a poetic language full of direct, sensual metaphors.

It would be easy for subject matter like this to sink into pathos, but McAdam avoids this by leading us to recognize in Looee’s fate not just the results of high-handed human meddling but a reflection of our own unbearable condition. There are no platitudes about the power of love and our need to feel for one another, but rather an understanding of how sad and damaging a business love frequently is. For social animals it’s a tragic instinct, even if we always have our reasons.

Review first published in the Toronto Star March 24, 2013.

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