May 2009160 pages, paperback
Very early one morning a doctor is called out to attend the corpse of a newborn baby who has been killed, the father freely admits, by a shot of strychnine chlorhydrate which he himself has administered. The police are called, but where is the mother? ‘She was taken back to the Zoo yesterday.’ ‘The Zoo? Does she work there?’ ‘No, she lives there … The mother is not a woman, properly speaking. She is a female of the species Paranthropus erectus.’
So begins Vercors’ classic novel raising the question: What is man?
Murder or not? The Paranthropus ("tropi" for short) are a large tribe of New Guinea cliff-dwellers who smoke their meat and bury their dead. Simian in many of their physical characteristics, they are normally erect in stance though happy to drop to all fours at a moment’s notice. Australian wool interests hope that the "tropis" will prove to be a dream come true - workers who can be trained to operate a loom without benefit of paycheck.
Newspaperman Douglas Templemore, an idealist, considers the tropis a fine chance for a test case. By killing his son (bred by artificial insemination of a female tropi), Douglas hopes to cause a riot in the realm of race relations. Is he a murderer or merely an owner of a pet, which he has "put to sleep"?
As Templemore comes up for trial the scientific experts file into the witness box; one is deaf, one is shortsighted, one is smooth as candle grease; but none agrees with the next on what constitutes a human being. Is man to be defined by his jawbone? By his rational capacity? By his grasp of metaphysics? Or is the judge right when he muses (without a trace of cynicism) that the tropis must be animals because they are not cannibals?
Vercors - Jean Bruller, who died in 1991, was a French writer and illustrator who co-founded Les Editions de Minuit during the World War II occupation of northern France, publishing his texts under the pseudonym Vercors - an area which was a centre for the Resistance.
Anne Atkins - Anne Atkins is a novelist, broadcaster and journalist. She is the author of several novels and works of non-fiction, and is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.