In Bernard Werber's first novel, critics have made a mountain out of an anthill.
By James DiGiovanna
APRIL 27, 1998:
Empire of the Ants, by Bernard Werber (Bantam). Cloth, $23.95.
IN MANY RESPECTS, the most interesting thing about Empire of the Ants is the hype that has accompanied its translation and arrival in America. Lauded everywhere from the Kirkus Review to the New York Review of Books, and winding up on recommended lists in both literary fiction and science fiction, the phenomenon of Ants is indicative of the strange mood of contemporary fiction.
Looking for something different, critics have been over-eager to embrace what seems new. This is clearly the case for Empire of the Ants, as it perhaps was for the vogues of the dysfunctional family dramas, multiculturalism, and urban minimalism which have come and gone in the last few years. And like those last few waves, Ants is far from entirely successful. While it makes an interesting and laudable effort to get past humanism, it fails on a number of levels; and where it is successful, it is only as a genre work. Essentially, it is the recounting of a shift in power inside a federation of anthills, combined with a mystery story revolving around a forbidden room in a newly acquired home.
With his tale of the ants, author Werber attempts a difficult trick, telling a dramatic story with individualized characters without succumbing to the desire to make the ants who populate his novel stand-ins for people or epitomes of specific human traits.
This would place Werber in a decidedly literary tradition, and one that is not well-exploited. The one thing that the last few waves in contemporary fiction have had in common is a focus on humanity. While multiculturalism was supposed to have the allure of difference, the novels and stories chosen to represent it tended to focus strongly on human emotion and intention, with family and pride surfacing as central themes. The idea that a non-human fiction could be successful was perhaps first put forward by Voltaire, who tried to tell the tale of space aliens in Micromegas. Though he wanted to escape the petty world view of the humanity he often despised, the concerns of his space men were nonetheless closely modeled on the ideals of the philosophes of 18th-century France. Most earlier tales without people were animal fables which simply used non-humans as stand-ins for human subtypes or stereotypes. Few have attempted to move beyond human concerns in their writing, taking on the perspective of the not-human, which would in fact be the truly other that was sought, futilely, in the works of the multiculturalists.
Here, at least, Werber is largely successful. The ants who inhabit the hills, though possessed of intelligence and purpose, do act in a decidedly non-human manner, as their dedication to the group is distinctly unlike that of a person's dedication to family, state or work. In spite of this, Werber manages to convey the intentionality of his chitinous characters in a manner that allows the reader to follow them with interest and sympathy.
There's also some well-directed information on ant communication. Since ants communicate by scent trail and the exchange of hormones, their language can be both truly symbolic and irresistible. As it was only a short time ago that ethologists, under the influence of 16th-century religious ideas, thought of humans as the only symbol-manipulators, it's refreshing to see this element of the story used without fanfare, but with a keen sense for the distinctions between auditory and chemical information. If a little more emphasis had been placed on fluidly expressing the taste-based language of the ants, Werber's critical supporters would have had a stronger case for calling this work a "masterpiece" (it was the London Times which used this effusive term).
The non-human part of the story revolves around one of the ants discovering, by accident, that there are forces at work in his anthill that are suppressing knowledge. This sounds cheesy, and reminiscent of thriller films where a government agent has gone rogue, but the politics of the anthill are not bureaucratic, hierarchical or royalist, and their difference from human institutions is what gives the tale its impetus. It's intriguing to read this as the work of a student of ant life. Werber has spent many years in scientific journalism, and he uses his novel as a pulpit for his theories on social organization in the ant world.
To that end, it's compelling reading, and the attempts by most entomologists to analogize ant behavior to some existing human social or political order are lampooned while an alternative view, of greater complexity, is put forth.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE ANT story is only part of the book, though it is mercifully the larger section. It is wedded to the tale of a family who inherits a home with a forbidden basement. Werber has no capacity whatsoever to write human characters, and the dialogue bounces from the embarrassing to the plainly boring. When the unemployed locksmith (see, it's a mystery, and locksmiths unlock things) Jonathan Wells acquires his house of secrets, he's curious about the great uncle who left it to him, and so asks said uncle's former colleagues for information. They provide it in three-page-long speeches stuffed with lines like "after his wife died he threw himself into the study of insects...Edmond was always a bit of a mystery. He was that kind of man."
To further diminish the quality of this work, there's an annoying trope that runs throughout the book in the form of a puzzle that must be solved to open a secret passageway: How can you make four equilateral triangles from six matches? The only connection to the larger themes of the work that this grade-school riddle involves is that one must think on a different plane for it to work. Apparently, Werber believed himself to be doing this in devising his ant/human parallelisms.
The puzzle's borrowing-from-Highlights-magazine motif is reinforced when one character tells the extremely tired proverb of the stone cutter who wanted to become the sun, only to find that a cloud could block him, so he became a cloud, etc., until he becomes a stone and is cut by...anyway, you've heard it before, and there's no excuse for sticking it into a novel which we read with the hope of encountering something, well, novel.
There's also some clumsy translations. A reference to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter" suffers a double translation into French and back into English to become "The Stolen Letter." I kept hoping there would be further discussion about The Large Gatsby and Lady Chatterly's Boyfriend, but no such luck.
Unfortunately, the stiffness of the human characters, the trite element of the mystery basement, and the silliness of the book's conclusion can't be blamed on the translator. Even the ant story is eventually infected by the human's tired tale, and in the end the two worlds connect, surprise surprise.
Still, while we wait for the next big thing, sometimes a book like this, which provides a partial glimpse at a relatively unexplored area of literature, can serve as a catalyst for others to enhance the exploration. Or maybe its shortcomings will scare off such a pursuit, and we'll be subject to more of the unselfconsciously insect-like people who filled out the pages of popular literary fiction in the '80s. In the meantime, dust off the Kafka and see how this sort of commentary can be done without sacrificing originality and force.
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