Monkey Wars, by Richard Kurti – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Monkey Wars, by Richard Kurti
NYC, Delacorte Press, January 2015, hardcover $17.00 (409 [+1] pages), Kindle $10.99.
Monkey Wars has been described as “a dark fable in the tradition of” – different reviewers have compared it to several other adult talking-animal novels; but almost always including Animal Farm and Watership Down. The British edition was nominated for two literary awards. It has been translated into French, German, and Japanese.
The novel, set in India, is based on the proliferation of wild street monkeys, usually rhesus macaques, in Delhi and Kolkata. They travel in troops and attack people if they are disturbed – sometimes when not provoked. The specific event that inspired Monkey Wars was from The New Delhi Times for 21 October 2007: “In a sinister development, the deputy mayor of Delhi, S. S. Bajwa, died this morning after being attacked by a gang of rhesus macaques.” But whenever the authorities try to curb the monkey problem, they are attacked by devout Hindus because all monkeys are believed to be sacred to Hanuman, the monkey god. Authorities have tried importing langur monkeys, a larger species, to scare the rhesus monkeys away, but with mixed success.
(This is still a problem. The New Indian Express reported on April 6, 2017 the discovery of a wild naked girl about 8 to 10 years old living with a troop of monkeys in the forests in northern India. When local police tried to remove her, they were attacked by the monkeys acting as though they were protecting one of their troop. The story was almost immediately disproven – the girl was wearing rags, and the monkeys ran away without attacking anyone. Authorities now believe that the girl, who is severely retarded, was recently abandoned by her family. But the story of a wild child being adopted and raised in the forests for years by monkeys was considered plausible.)
“They struck at noon.
Monkeys shrieked in confusion as langur fighters sprang down from the cemetery walls, howling in an attacking frenzy. As they stormed through the tombs, fear and panic flashed everywhere. And with the screams came the smell of blood.” (p. 5)
A troop of rhesus monkeys that has been living peacefully for generations in an abandoned human cemetery (which in India is full of miniature Hindu temple reproductions) is suddenly ruthlessly attacked by an organized army of langur monkeys. The langurs kill all the rhesus males, drive out the females and children, and take over the cemetery for themselves.
The beginning of the novel is divided into two stories, told in mostly alternating chapters; those of Papina, a young rhesus girl, and of Mico, a young langur boy. Papina and her mother Willow are traumatized by the disappearance of their males, and by being driven into the streets of Kolkata that are already filled by as many slum monkeys as they will hold. Mico, who is too young to question what he is told, is delighted by the palatial new home that the langur Lord Ruler Gospodar announces that he has found for them.
The short chapters are full of action and tension. Papina, Willow, and the other rhesus females are harried into increasingly shabby and dangerous neighborhoods. They are finally rescued by Twitcher, a rhesus male who takes them to a temple of Hanuman where they can live in peace, if not the luxury that they had known in the cemetery.
Mico, who is more curious than most langur children, is told to not ask questions:
“‘But asking questions is …’ Mico frowned. ‘It’s what monkeys do. Monkeys question.’
‘The langur troop aren’t like other monkeys. We were chosen,’ Trumble [Mico’s father] replied solemnly. ‘Chosen to fight for peace. The langur keep the streets safe from the hordes of wild monkeys out there. If we questioned every decision Lord Gospodar made’ – Trumble broke off to look around the cemetery – ‘we wouldn’t have all this.’” (p. 26)
Mico gradually sees things that do not match what he is told. Despite the langur’s advertised freedom and luxury, they are ruled by Lord Gospodar and his Ruling Council of General Pogo, Deputies Tyrell and Hani, and one ordinary monkey to represent the concerns of the common langurs. Monkeys who question the Council tend to be ostracized or disappear. In scenes within Mico’s chapters, Deputy Tyrell acts like Stalin in the first days of Soviet authority (or like Napoleon at the beginning of Animal Farm), constantly volunteering for minor positions that, added up, will transfer power to him.
Mico and Papina get together in Chapter 12, on page 75. I have revealed several minor spoilers getting this far, so I won’t continue in as much detail. Even though Mico has tried to keep a low profile among the langurs, he is noticed by Deputy Tyrell. Papina’s attempts to get the cemetery back for the rhesuses get her branded as a troublemaker by the other rhesuses who are content to let well enough alone. When she meets Mico, she is forbidden to associate with him..
Papina’s talents cause her to rise in the rhesuses’ hierarchy, and she can see the coming battle with the langurs. Mico’s fears are realized when he sees that the langurs are preparing to take their supremacy outside the cemetery:
“‘The city is looking to us,’ Gospodar declared. ‘It needs us to eradicate the scourge of savage monkeys! The Ruling Council and I are of one mind: in the name of peace, we must mobilize for war!’” (p. 99)
but he remains hesitant to turn against his own leaders, his own people — his own family.
“Mico shuddered as the dampness of the night crept up on him. He scrambled to the top of the wall and perched himself on the smooth coping stones.
On one side of him was the cemetery, on the other the city stretching out into the distance. He was perched between two worlds in more ways than one. Whichever decision he made seemed to lead to unhappiness. Maybe he should just spend the rest of his life sitting up here on this wall.” (p. 145)
Will Mico and Papina join together to prevent a bloody, fatal confrontation? Or will they remain separate for a tragic, Romeo-&-Juliet conclusion?
Or will something unexpected happen?
Kurti’s writing is straightforward but gripping; Monkey Wars (cover by Will Staehle) deserves the accolade of “unputdownable”. Since Mico and Papina are both monkey young adolescents, Monkey Wars could serve as a Young Adult novel. It is published as an adult literary novel from a major publisher, and it got good reviews, so your public library may have it. Author Kurti has an animated blurb for Monkey Wars on his website.
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