What happens

when a chimp learns language??

Benjamin Hale’s novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is told from the point of view of  “the world’s first chimpanzee to develop the power of speech . . .”

Excerpt from the book:

I’m a Chicago boy, Gwen–I grew up in the Primate House of the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Zoo records indicate that I was born with no complications on August 20, 1983.  My mother, Fanny, had been born and raised there, had spent the entirety of her sad dull life in the very same zoo.  I’m young enough to have been raised mostly in the considerably larger and sleeker modern facilities that were built to replace the outmoded sewer which had previously housed the great apes, and my mother never tired of silently reminding me and Cookie how good we had it.  My father had a somewhat more interesting background.  He wasn’t born in captivity, but in the Old Country, in the northeastern part of what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  At the time he was born there was some sort of bloodbath going on in Zaire, and the swarms of starving refugees fleeing hither and thither would butcher chimps for bushmeat.  At a young age my father saw his mother and father murdered and subsequently devoured.   He was forced to watch while they dismembered his parents with machetes, drilled spits through their corpses, cooked them over a fire and ate them.  The two adult chimps they killed and ate because they were hungry, but they refrained from killing the baby right away because there was little meat on him (he was more valuable alive).  Instead they tied him to a stick by his wrists and ankles, which they carried around with them for several days until they crossed the border to the Central African Republic and arrived at a populated area, where they sold my father to a German trader who illegally trafficked in exotic animals.  The German was a man in a big yellow hat, who starved and beat him, and put him in a cage, which was transported from one place to another until he wound up on an airplane that landed finally in Germany, where he spent five years in the Berlin Zoo before a mysterious chain of exchanges and communiques put him back on a plane, which this time landed at O’Hare, where he was loaded into the back of a van and conveyed to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where he was introduced to a jejune and somewhat mentally obtuse female chimp whom he was expected to shtup immediately, and whom out of boredom he eventually did.  This my brother was conceived, followed three years by me.  The Germans had named him Rotpeter, meaning “Red Peter,” after the streaks of distinctly ruddy coloration in his fur.  My father never quite lost that touch of aboriginal uncouthness.  He’d known freedom only to have it cruelly revoked–whereas I, Bruno, was born in captivity, became free because I learned language, committed a transgression, and now, as you see, am in captivity once again.  My father, though, had–however briefly–experienced life the way it was meant to be lived.  He knew what he had lost, and this knowledge fueled him with an indignant rage that as a child–even in my terror of him–I admired.  Not so my mother.  She had never known Zion.  She was born in the ghetto, a zoo-child of zoo-parents.  And she suffered my father’s boorish machismo and womanizing with the same matter-of-factly passive acceptance with which she accepted her own confinement from birth.

BENJAMIN HALE grew up in Colorado, and studied literature and Ancient Greek at Sarah Lawrence College. He has worked as a night shift baker, a trompe l’oeil painter, and a technical documents editor. In 2008 he received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is intensely interested in animal cognition and the philosophy of language.


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