D.he instructions for use for his novel “Nur die Tiere” are provided by Colin Niel with the first few sentences. People always wanted a beginning, it says, they “imagine that if a story starts somewhere, it must have an end”. What happened in nowhere in the French Massif Central has become a kind of gossip hit among the residents, including the silent post effect. You spin something, sand an edge smooth here, mill out a detail there. “I would do it like that,” says one character, “at least you have something to tell, everyone wants to have something to tell, otherwise you don’t exist.” That means: Don’t believe everything you read.
This would overcome the thriller in favor of the lore of the human soul. Yes, this book is about a missing woman. No, the step-by-step solution to the case is not the sole power center of the plot. Niel, born in Clamart in 1976, prefers to think about the connection between the narrative instinct and the human condition. And if it is true that we are only when we communicate, its protagonists do not have to worry about their existence. Five people report one after the other what they had to do with the missing and, it will be allowed to divulge, murdered Évelyne Ducat. Each in their own sociolect. Each with different narrative strategies. Everyone as a narrative theorist in disguise.
The nonconformist among the Whodunit adepts
Anyone who subjugates such a program to a novel must be careful not to drown in the vortex of explanations about myths that create civilization and meaningful acts of creation (in the beginning was the word!). Because crime stories and pseudo-academic lectures are often close together – fans of the genre know the problem. Not so with Niel. He weaves a tear-resistant action fabric because, based on his staff, he occasionally sprinkles reflections, can claim the general validity, but forbids himself to transform the figures into vessels of culturally and historically significant ideas.
For this nonconformist among the Whodunit adepts, psychologically neglected characters and a plot structure freed from any pattern are more important than self-adulation. This also convinced Dominik Moll, who presented his film version of the material at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019.
In the interpersonal morass
Events are often motivated by coincidences and have no glimmer of hope. Alice, a social worker who cares for the local farmers, points out: “What we are seeing are broken families, relationships that are broken because Madame wants a child and Monsieur wants a new stable; Men who sink into depression under the sheer burden of work. ”The flow of communication with her husband Michel – he also works as a farmer – has degenerated into a trickle. His equally taciturn colleague Joseph says: “Well, I just know how to talk to sheep.” Alice falls in love with him, cheats on her husband and wonders whether she should be ashamed or happy about it.
Once she remarks: “We stared at each other for seconds, I looked for an explanation in his gaze, which was more determined than ever.” She is not alone in that, because “Only the Animals” is about a double search: for the truth about Évelyne Ducat and about the nature of others. Since there are no final answers, the reader follows how the characters drag their way through interpersonal morass, groping and interpreting, trying in vain to grab their partners and reality by the sleeper. But what emerges there, “somewhere between the invented and exaggerated, was a kind of portrait of the missing and maybe not that far from reality”. So literature tells us that in the end everything may be literature.
Niel’s great art unfolds in economical dialogue that implodes before it can even pick up speed. In the case of the borderliner Maribé, however, it is an exploding dialogue. Like her colleagues, she is looking for closeness and wants to be embraced like a cocoon by the right words at the right time. At the same time, she torpedoes these needs by entering into a liaison with the married Évelyne Ducat and thereby shrinking from a subject to an object: one dictates the dates on which one meets, the other accepts a self-destructive dependency and takes “the a few crumbs of love and fleeting joys which she gave me like an abandoned animal the ration of food ”.
The characters perform a series of “anger, sadness, hate and love, incomprehension and guilt”. In the penultimate chapter – the setting is the Ivory Coast – the author reduces the psychological refinement in order to shed light on the background of the event. The book is therefore not screwed up, but the dynamics of human, all-too-human behavior dissolved in favor of a rather bland cause-effect chain in terms of narrative economics. Does a story that starts somewhere have to have an ending? Certainly, the story of Évelyne Ducat rears up again on the last few pages and takes a new direction. Open end.
Colin Niel: “Only the animals”. Novel. Translated from the French by Anne Thomas. Lenos Verlag, Basel 2021. 286 pp., Br., 22, – €.