Book Review: You Shall Know Them

You Shall Know Them (1953), or Les animaux dénaturés in the French, is a novel by Jean Marcel Bruller under the pseudonym Vercors. He is most famously known for The Silence of the Sea (1942), which explores the experience of a French family and a German occupying officer who attempts to convince the family of Hitler’s good intentions toward France until he realized he had been misled and it was too late. You Shall Know Them was written during the Nazi occupation of France. Vercors was a member of the French Resistance and actively opposed Nazi fascism throughout the war and injustice throughout his life. The book explores injustice and dehumanization like many experienced at the hands of the Nazis.

The book is a quick and captivating read and the English translation—completed by Vercors’ second wife, Rita Barisse Vercors—is excellent. The narrative is told through various methods, including narration, dialogue, and letters written between the story’s protagonist Douglas Templemore and his love interest Frances Doran. The shifts between the various methods of storytelling can—at times—feel a bit disjointed; although they feed into the central narrative, the abrupt shifts can be rattling, particularly when they happen mid-chapter. Once the reader adjusts to this particular style of storytelling—which becomes less of an issue in the later chapters—the book is quite compelling.

You Shall Know Them is all at once, many things. At the surface, it is the story of a journalist: Douglas Templemore, who takes part in a great discovery; that of a group of hominins, previously unknown the Western world. The book includes a love triangle between Douglas, an old flame, Sybil, and Frances which breaks up the heavy subject matter of the main theme. However, the book also explores deeper themes of the nature of being human, the place of animals in the human world, the capitalist goal of maximizing profits, a thought experiment for examining the Sorites paradox (paradox of the heap), and ultimately serves as an exploration of the consequences and implications of the definition of ‘human.’

The book begins with the profound realization that Douglas Templemore has murdered his own son, except that his son was born to a tropi (Paranthropus erectus), one of the newly discovered hominids from New Guinea, who became pregnant through artificial insemination. Douglas, after his son’s birth, has a birth certificate drawn up, has him Christened, and has a doctor sign a death certificate. He then proceeds to confess to the child’s murder and is subsequently arrested.

From this point the book tells the story of the discovery of the tropis in the remote, virgin jungle of New Guinea. Douglas travels to New Guinea along with Sybil: an anthropologist going in search of remains of an extinct hominid species. Once the party reaches their destination, they discover burial sites; not of ancient remains, but recently interred individuals. The “ape-men” are not extinct and inhabit the remote forests of New Guinea. These hairy, primitive creatures lack a recognizable spoken language and have a divergent big toe but make tools, smoke meat, and have burial traditions.

Vancruysen and the Takura Corporation get word of the existence of the tropis and their ability to learn simple mechanical tasks like working a screwdriver and decide that they can increase their profit margin and dominate the industry by using the tropis as “beasts of burdens.” This begs the question: are the tropis humans? If so then exploiting their labor would be a reinstatement of chattel slavery. To prevent this, Douglas volunteers to serve as a donor for the artificial insemination of a number of tropis to demonstrate that they belong in the same species as humans using the Biological Species Concept: organisms that can breed and produce viable offspring.

Here the book picks back up with the first chapter and Douglas is taken to trial. The prosecution is tasked with demonstrating that Douglas has committed infanticide and the tropis, do in fact, belong to the species Homo sapiens. Throughout the trial, witnesses are called with experience with the tropis, and expertise in zoology, anthropology, and psychology. The trial shifts from an attempt to decide whether tropis are human or not, to an examination of what it is to be human. A myriad of experts employ various criteria for defining ‘human’: including language, morphology, and certain cultural practices like ju-jus: cultural taboos.

While the book has a happy ending—despite the murder of a baby—there is a sense of incompleteness. While Frances hopes that Douglas is found not guilty, given her love and their recent marriage, this would contradict Douglas’ goal of liberating the tropis from slavery. With the court’s ruling, tropis now experience the same rights as all humans and yet there is a sense of somberness; their innocence and carefree lifestyles have been tainted and substituted for that of civilization, with all the troubles that are implicit in it.

The book offers a nuanced critique of capitalism, where the central goal of profit maximization, potentially results in an environment in which corporations fight fervently for policy that permits chattel slavery. In this sense, Douglas is a classic hero, sacrificing himself for the salvation of the tropis. While litigation over slavery are unlikely to occur (despite US prison labor exploitation) this theme can be elaborated to contemporary capitalist societies. Interrogation of wage slavery, wage theft, exploitation, and alienation at the hands of those with control over the means of production can also be a means by which the working class are liberated.

You Shall Know Them also serves as a study in 1950’s Western culture and anthropology as the ideas and arguments that take place in the book mirror those within physical anthropology. Arguments concerning race as natural categories, conceptions of gender, and what it is to be human are all explored in elegant prose. It also challenges the reader to evaluate one’s own conception of Humanity and the meaning intrinsic to membership in this privileged group. Humans in Western societies have access to certain rights and privileges that are not afforded to other species, but this also comes along with certain cultural responsibilities. This book leaves the reader wanting to know the fate of the tropis, their place in their new world, and how are they accepted into Western society. This is left up to the reader’s imagination.

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