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    It is ironic that I finished this book at the 46th anniversary of the Kent State University shootings during the protests against the war in Vietnam. (I live very near Kent.) This was actually the second time I read this book, and it was just as creepy and more understandable second time around.
    Robert Merle was born in French Algeria in 1908 and died in France in 2004 at the age of 95. He was a university professor of English Literature, but the book was originally written in French under the title Un animal doué de raison, (A Sentient Animal), 1967. This particular edition (Simon and Schuster) was translated by Helen Weaver. It is a rare book, so if you can get your hands on it, I strongly suggest grabbing it up.
     Despite being French, Merle wrote it from an American viewpoint. In fact without doing research, one would have no idea the author was French. It is set in Florida, during the late sixties and early seventies, during the period when youth was beginning to wake up and realize what a lying, cheating, selfish, miserable lot were (ARE) the members of government, the wealthy, the "security" operations and spying agencies. Merle hit it right on the nose, and, remember, hindsight is 20/20, and looking back, we see just how on the nose it was and still is.
    It has to be one of the strangest, most disturbing and chilling books I've ever read—there is this intangible quality that I can't quite define that sets this novel apart from the others. It is presented in a way that makes one wonder if there isn't some truth to the whole matter—a finely blended cocktail of fiction and non-fiction, dead-serious and satire, along with some pretty strong social statements of love in the early seventies. But it is mostly about the emerging attitudes of prejudice toward foreign countries, seeds planted by our own government in the attempt to trigger another World War, and gosh, does that sound familiar, or what? But perhaps the most important aspect is the few characters who stand out because they have not allowed the lust for greed and power to prostitute them. This small handful of heroes are humane and loving toward animals, and less toward people as their eyes are gradually opened wide. These are the people who cannot be bought, and who operate with the highest sense of ethical decency.
    Not only was this the era of the War in Vietnam, but the Cold War era with Russia, and fear of those miserable commies in Red China. The possibility of World War III, not just another war, but a nuclear war, where people wondered if the next day would be their last, as superpowers, especially the great US of A now had the means to wipe off whole countries from the planet. The spies, however, featured in the story were not foreign, but American agents spying on each other. But perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the book is the surveillance, which hits Arlette, Sevilla's wife, when she realizes they have been observed in intimate moments.
    We meet the handsome, divorced, and extremely intelligent Henry Sevilla as he speaks to a small group of wealthy snobbish ladies, sponsored by Mrs. Jameson, president of the Club. She is a grotesquely fat, nosy and arrogant widow, who keeps feeling the lump in her breast. The other ladies in the Club are not quite like that, and as Sevilla speaks, he spots one who obviously is attracting his interest. Though he is passionately devoted to his scientific research with dolphins, he still has not come to terms with his sexual desires, which at this point, give him very little satisfaction. He goes from one affair to another. One of the very bizarre aspect of this novel concerns sexual relations of the characters, totally unrelated to the story line. One wonders why Merle chose to include them, but, well, I guess you could call this a rich book with a great deal of then contemporary subject matter to comment upon.
    We then meet a creepy little spy named C (who we never really get to know and that's OK), who has some internal medical issue, and thinks he has outsmarted Lorrimer and Adams. (We later learn that these two are important people in the agency that is supporting Sevilla's work.) But most of the story takes place at the lab in Florida where Sevilla is doing his work with a male dolphin, an orphan named Ivan, who was raised since birth by his human "parents."
    The other most important person at the lab is Arlette, and once Sevilla breaks off his last affair, he and Arlette fall in love for real. There is also Michael, like a son to Sevilla, but who is a conscientious objector to the draft, and eventually is jailed. Peter and Suzy are also Sevilla's assistants, and they eventually marry, too. Lisbeth is a trouble-maker, some sort of maybe lesbian or undefined sexual preference, who is just plain nasty. She eventually quits and becomes a traitor. Bob is one to be observed—he might possibly be gay, and he is all charm, and also a spy for C. Sevilla knows that and puts up with it. These spies are no secret. In the end, he turns traitor, and pays the price. Then there's Maggie.

She was twenty-nine, short, stocky, red-faced, the corners of her eyes constantly secreted a whitish liquid, there were red splotches on her cheeks, her hair was thin and lusterless, her nose and chin were trying to meet over lips which were thick, red protruding, and wet with saliva, hastily clad in a pair of skintight blue jeans and a shirt with big red and green checks,

    Incidentally, the book is in a very strange form, hardly ever full sentences, more in a stream of consciousness style, long, drawn-out phrases with only commas to separate. It is annoying at first, but one gets used to it. Though Maggie is a good professional secretary, she is delusional. Other than what concerns work, most of what comes out of her mouth is, not exactly a lie, because she believes it, but more her own mental fantasies. She claims James Dean was in love with her, but so was Sevilla, and now she speaks as if she and Bob will soon be engaged. However, when it doesn't happen, the delay is always her choice. She's utterly pathetic and the others pretend to go along with her make-believe world. Actually, I know a real person just like that—not a word that comes out of her mouth is true.
    She and Lisbeth room together. Lisbeth says:

And now she's going to tell me about James Dean again, and more about Sevilla, and more about Bob, she's obsessed, it's a real sickness, if she weren't such a good girl I'd end up disliking her, and so ugly she almost makes me sick to my stomach. I always want to take my handkerchief and wipe out the corners of her eyes.

    We really get to know Ivan when C and his assistant come to "visit" the lab. Ivan knows forty words, and he desperately needs a mate. Things did not work out between him and Mina, and apparently it was sexual issues. Mina was moved to be with other dolphins.
    But Sevilla insists that a mate for Ivan will help him develop his speech. At this point, he can only say one word at a time and cannot form a sentence. Furthermore, a two syllable word is reduced to the last syllable. "Stand?
    So enter Bessie. So that there are no failed courtship rituals in this relationship, the two are watched through the first night they spend together. Ivan is Fa and Bessie, Bi. And though they get along famously—they become mates and are in love, but rather than Fa's speech improving (dolphins, by the way, sound through their spiracles, not their mouths), he and Bi become so close that they lose interest in lessons. Finally Sevilla is forced to make a difficult choice—he constructs a barrier to separate them. At first Fa attempts to crash into it repeatedly to break it down (dolphins are very strong), but eventually he is forced to speak to Sevilla.

"Yes, Fa?" said Sevilla, kneeling down and stroking his head.
Sevilla said nothing.
Fa stared at him with an eye full of astonishment, "Pa!"
"Yes, Fa?"
Sevilla lifted his brows but did not answer.
Fa said suddenly, "Stand?"
"No," said Sevilla.
Fa looked at him again with astonishment and seemed to think this over. Then he said distinctly, pausing a tenth of a second between words, "Pa give Bi!"
"Good God!" said Sevilla under his breath. The sweat streamed down his body and his hands began shaking again. He repeated, "Pa give Bi?"
"Stand?" asked Fa in a high-pitched voice.

    Both Dolphins soon are able to speak sentences, and not only that, they develop as intellectuals and understand politics. Eventually they are presented to the public by way of a press conference.
    But things begin to go downhill for Sevilla and Arlette. Bob double-crosses them, and while Adams calls Sevilla away, their agents are taking Fa and Bi. Sevilla also finds that another scientist will temporarily be heading his lab. But Sevilla is still not quite aware of how the government plans to use the dolphins.
    Then a catastrophe strikes: Saigon, The U.S. Cruiser Little Rock is destroyed by an atomic explosion, Jan. 4, 1973.
    After this point, there is little about the dolphins and their training, and the book focused more on politics. And the politics are that we are heading toward World War III with China, and the politicians and press persuade the people that the Chinese were behind the bombing of this vessel. Meanwhile, Sevilla and Arlette have resigned, and have bought an isolated island in the Keys. (Sevilla has published his book and is now quite wealthy.) He brings along Maggie, Suzy and Peter. Michael is in jail for refusing the draft. They are working with a new female dolphin named Daisy, and she brings home a friend named Jim. But the deadline ultimatum the U.S. has given China nears, and Sevilla finds himself now in serious danger. It worsens as he learns Fa and Bi will be returned to him. Tension and terror build to the end.
    Here are some quotes, first, when Sevilla finally begins to understand politics:

I thought the disinterested search for the truth was the only pure thing there was, and here I am, precisely because of my research, up to my neck in all this shit, forced to have political preferences, my career threatened, and even my reputation, if I am not unconditionally faithful to the Government and its goals, goals I know nothing about, and who does for that matter?

    Here is a quote from the Yugoslavian philosopher Marco Llepovič:

When one thinks that the United States has in its atomic arsenals the wherewithal to destroy not only all its enemies but the whole planet—itself included—one is surprised by the persistence of so frenzied and chronic a fever in the most powerful nation on earth. This too is an alarming symptom, for the idea of war, even of a war of aggression, may be accepted unresistingly by a population so conditioned, provided it is presented to them as a preventive war against an enemy who is preparing to destroy them.

    And here, in a conversation between Sevilla and Michael while he is in jail, Michael says:

American democracy consists of giving the voter the illusion of choice. . . .
You see, elections don't matter. They're rigged from the start. It's public opinion that counts.

    Does any of this sound really familiar?
     And here is a really horrible one, concerning the American attitude toward the Chinese, who actually had done nothing whatsoever against the Americans. Like us now fighting the "terrorists" that don't really exist.

People preferred Chinks, yellowbellies, slants, Charleys, or, more politely, but with no less hostility, Asiatics. From what was said in the street, in bars, and in offices, it was obvious that for the speakers the existence of seven hundred million Chinese was defined by three fundamental sins: They were yellow, they were little, and they were Communists. Apart from these sins, their virtues were turned into vices. Their intelligence was merely guile. Their patience was ambition, their economy was avarice. Their ingeniousness was diabolical. In reality, God had given power to the big white men, together with the wisdom and power necessary for its exploitation.

    And this from a bigoted little southern politician:

I have nothing against the Chinese. If they want to come over here and open laundries and wash my dirty clothes, I have no objections. But I do object to letting these little monkeys wander all over Asia with H-bombs.

    Merle was quite perceptive of typical American sentiment for a Frenchman.
    And another quote from Marco Llepovič:

In a country where all the news media are in the hands of money, the still small voice of truth is quickly drowned out by the powerful organs of falsehood and confusion.

    In this scene, Arlette and Sevilla are sitting at night stroking Daisy, and she declares, as she does every night, that she loves them. Arlette always feels a "sweet sadness' during these moments.

What a planet, what men, what a mess! God knows why these animals love us so much. There's nothing lovable about us.

    And at the end, when Sevilla truly despises Adams:

Sevilla looked at him. How cynical this way of thinking was! And how natural it seemed to Adams! A hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred million Americans die a hideous death, and I survive because I have money. I have the right to do what I like with my money; for example, devote it to saving my own skin amid the general slaughter. What's more, all Americans would approve of me, in the name of individual liberty and free enterprise.

    Merle based much of his dolphin material on the research done by Dr. John Lilly. There was also a movie made with the same name but, it was only loosely based on the book.
    If you can get hold of this one, I highly recommend it.


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