Book Review: “My Stupid Intentions” — The Heartbreaking Bildungsroman of a Beech Marten
By Peter Keough
The fox knows many things in My Stupid Intentions. The beech marten just one.
My Stupid Intentions by Bernardo Zannoni. Translated from the Italian by Alex Andriesse. New York Review Books, 224 pages, $17.95.
Bernardo Zannoni’s eloquent and heartbreaking debut novel, the bildungsroman of a beech marten named Archy who lives in an unforgiving version of the Hundred Acre Wood, offers no redeeming cuteness. Nor is the ultimate culprit Man, as in Bambi and The Jungle Book, at least not directly. My Stupid Intentions is a kind of anthropomorphized animal version of Paradise Lost, though the prelapsarian world is far from paradisal. The simple, unenlightened beasts of the forest are red in tooth and claw, but true evil does not enter the world until an animal aspires to become human, and thus divine. All because of a book. Or two.
The story merges The Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit with The Painted Bird and it begins with a hanging. Archy’s father was caught stealing by a farmer — one of the rare appearances of a human being in the book — and shot and hung up as a warning. Thus abandoned by her mate, Archy’s mother redoubles her customary bitterness and abusiveness but continues nursing her six kits (though inadvertently crushing one to death), including the sickly runt Otis, who knew he was not long for the world. In the world of beech martens, sibling rivalry can be lethal, incest casual and accepted (Archy’s sister Louise is the love of his life), and maternal discipline can be maiming. As Archy relates in Kosinski-like prose the aftermath of one such episode:
While Cara began to cry, we stared at that strange white-and-red lump, as it slowly dawned on us it was a chunk of her eyeball. Our sister held her head with one paw, stifling the pain as the blood mottled her face. Leroy let the eye fall to the ground. For a moment I had thought he might eat it.
In such a marten-eat-marten world, Archy feels he must prove his worth. He climbs a tree to raid a robin’s nest to bring the eggs back home for the family and comes tumbling down, injuring his foot. He is crippled and deemed useless so his mother sells him for one and a half chickens to Solomon the lender, the old fox who runs the goods exchange that exploits all the animals. He serves as a kind of vulpine, capitalist equivalent of the Stalinist pigs in Animal Farm.
Was Archy’s fall from the tree perhaps a felix culpa? At first Solomon seems a harsh, Dickensian master, beating Archy when he fails to do his chores properly, calling him “ass hair,” terrorizing him with his enforcer Joel, a giant black dog. But Solomon fascinates Archy with his collection of cryptic artifacts, such as a music box and other trinkets he barters from his clientele. Not to mention his inexplicable asides, such as
“Do you know that God almost made Abraham kill Isaac?” The old fox would frequently say things like this. I didn’t know God or Isaac, or for that matter Abraham.
And Solomon, despite his cynicism and ruthlessness, takes a shine to Archy. He decides to teach him how to read and write, entrusting him as his amanuensis to edit his memoirs into a book which he hopes will portray him as a God-fearing, heroic figure.
Solomon started out as a ne’er-do-well, a young scavenger, thief, and killer. But one day while gnawing on the corpse of a hanged criminal
… something fell and hit him on the head… At first he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He couldn’t fathom letters, let alone words. The thing remained a mystery, a nightly torment that robbed him of sleep. If it had fallen on his head, from the heavens, there must be a reason. Never in his life had he sought any sense deeper than his instinct alone.
That was when he began to spy on men. He watched what they did and how they talked, trying to understand. He met a dog who took a liking to him. Her owner’s children were learning to read and write, so she too could understand a bit. He brought her the thing he had caught in the woods and she instructed him …
Once he could read, the word of God hit him over the head even more forcefully. The truth about life and the world destroyed everything that up till then he had been, eradicating his very self.
Then he got back on his feet. If God had chosen to reveal these things to him, there could only be one explanation.
“I am his son. I am a man,” he said…
“Why did he do this to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, smiling. “Men are always saved.”
Archy doesn’t quite buy Solomon’s claim about being human, or even that he has become a better animal from the words he has read. Solomon tells him,
“From them I learned that life wasn’t just stealing. Or killing…”
It seemed to me that he was still stealing and killing, but using a more complex system, which, he said, he had also learned from God’s book.
Nonetheless Archy has learned the terrible truth that all animals are blessedly ignorant of – the inescapability of death. He only feels release from this knowledge when he regresses to his purely animal nature, when he hunts or fights or kills. “No doubts, no questions,” he describes these moments. “The present was my whole world and outside of it there was nothing. I was an animal. I was happy.”
And also, inevitably, when he writes.
My journey had become a memory, a terrible but ancient tale. Clutching the pages in my paw, I felt their weight and understood that things had changed forever. I had trapped my prison on paper. Once more I was free—and sad.
The truths Zannoni explores are familiar and the animal tale might be one of the oldest literary genres. But he brings to both a fresh vividness (he began the book when he was 21 and is now 27) and limpid simplicity that revitalizes them. He renews the old terror of fundamental observations, as in the book’s final sentence: “The last fear is coming, the one you face alone, from the beginning to the end.”
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).