A fast-paced and sometimes provocative novel of ideas.
My attention was drawn to this book by a mention made of it by the late philosopher Mortimer J. Adler in some of his writing on the Great Idea of Man. Adler, who developed the list of 102 (later 103) Great Ideas that are presented as part of the Britannica Great Books series, taught that the Great Ideas are great because they are perennially controversial: their internal difficulties keep ramifying in new directions, opening up new avenues of debate in each generation. The idea of Man–what is human nature?–is still far from settled.
Vercors (the pen name of Jean Bruller, 1902-1991), evidently fascinated with the problem, found a story idea to bring it into sharp focus. A group of British archaeologists digging in New Guinea discover a community of previously unknown manlike apes, or apelike men, living in the forest. These cave-dwelling creatures, who come to be called “tropis,” produce rudimentary tools and use a simple language. Soon word of the discovery gets out, and before long some Australian industrialists start scheming to “domesticate” the tropis and use them as “skilled” livestock to work in textile factories.
The idealistic young journalist Douglas Templemore, alarmed at the jeopardy these ape-men are now in, comes up with a shocking gambit to try to save the tropis from this fate: he causes one of the female tropis to be impregnated with some of his own sperm, and, when a child is born to her, Douglas murders the child. He immediately confesses the deed and thereby forces the British justice system to take up the question of the tropis’ status.
While Vercors takes pains to present characters who are visually striking and different from each other, they are mainly involved with debating the ideas and morality of the situation. And although Douglas is the main character, the story is not really his, for many other characters are brought in as different aspects of the situation need treatment. Also, although the book was published in 1952, the presentation of the characters and action reminded me of reading a 19th-century novel, maybe something by Jules Verne or Bram Stoker or H. G. Wells: the characters are all well-bred, earnest, and polite.
The first half of the book is the stronger. In it I felt some strange chilling feelings around my heart, for Vercors did put his finger on the nub of the issue. Is someone you can mate with necessarily human? The focus on the cause celebre of the murder trial in the second half seemed to make the issue a purely cerebral one, and the emotional power of the idea evaporated away for me.
Still: interesting, original, and a pretty fast read.
Full disclosure: all book (and some author) links on this page are affiliate links. That means whenever you click on one, you’ll be taken to the relevant page of an online bookstore. If you make a purchase, I receive a small commission.