Around 500 BC, the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator guided a fleet of sixty oared ships through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the northwest lobe of the great elephant ear that is the African continent. Toward the end of his journey, on an island in a lagoon, he encountered a “rude description of people”—rough-skinned, hairy, violent. The local interpreters called them Gorillae. Hanno and his crew attempted to capture some of them, but many climbed up steep elevations and hurled stones in defense. Eventually, the Carthaginians caught three female Gorillae, flayed them, and brought their skins back home, where they hung in the Temple of Tanit for several centuries.
Though scholars dispute whether the Gorillae were gorillas, chimpanzees, or an indigenous tribe of humans, many regard Hanno’s account as the oldest surviving record of humans encountering another species of great ape. The ambiguity of Hanno’s early descriptions—are the Gorillae human or beast, people or apes?—is not just an artifact of translational difficulties; it is exemplary of a profound misunderstanding in historical attitudes about our closest animal cousins, a confusion that is still being resolved today.
On a windy spring morning two years ago, at an ape sanctuary and research facility in the heart of North America, I had an encounter of my own. Spread over six acres of forest, fields, and lakes in Des Moines, Iowa, the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative is home to a clan of five bonobos, including the renowned Kanzi, perhaps the most linguistically talented ape ever studied. When Kanzi was an infant, researchers tried to teach his adoptive mother to communicate using an array of lexigrams on a keyboard. She never made much progress, but Kanzi, like a human child exposed to language, began to use the symbols on his own. Today, he knows the meanings of hundreds of lexigrams and understands many phrases of spoken English as well.
A few months back, I landed in Narita Airport, and from there I took a rail to the center of Tokyo. The plan was to spend a few weeks in Japan. Partly because I’d always wanted to, but mostly because the chance had presented itself. The island lived in my imagination the way it does for gaijin all over the world. There are millions of us, and we never think we’ll go—but my boyfriend Dave and I were going; we’d bought the tickets, booked the Airbnbs, and one night before we left, a whiteboy in a bar asked what any of that had to do with me.
My parents used to travel. They’d made their way all over. We had a cupboard full of mugs from Sweden, and some salt shakers from Peru, and, some weekends, my father wore a kimono around the living room, mumbling after shitty NFL calls in German. Growing up in Houston, I studied Japanese in school. None of it was practical. It had absolutely nothing to do with my life.
In an essay about translating “Human Acts,” published in the online magazine Asymptote, Deborah Smith describes reading Han’s work and being “arrested by razor-sharp images which arise from the text without being directly described there.” She quotes a couple of her “very occasional interpolations,” including the striking phrase “sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass.” Charse Yun, in his essay about “The Vegetarian,” declares his admiration for Smith’s work but argues that it is a “new creation.” Smith insists that the phrases she added are images “so powerfully evoked by the Korean that I sometimes find myself searching the original text in vain, convinced that they were in there somewhere, as vividly explicit as they are in my head.”
Once you’ve made a reservation at Paris’s first nudist restaurant, you find yourself neurotically broadcasting this bit of news to anyone who will listen. While vacationing in France’s capital recently, a visitor from New York City approached the front desk of his hotel and told the thoughtful-looking employee seated there, “Tonight, we will be eating at the naturist restaurant, O’Naturel. In addition to our clothing, we will also be surrendering our phones, so between eight-forty-five and eleven o’clock we will be unreachable.” The desk clerk nodded gravely.
O’Naturel is situated on a residential street in the Twelfth Arrondissement, a stone’s throw from a nursery school. The restaurant’s co-proprietor, smiling and fully dressed, buzzed the visitor and a friend into a tiny, curtained-off lobby. “New York City!” the co-proprietor said, glancing at his reservation book. “A woman from there is eating with us tonight as well!” The visitor murmured to his friend, “Probably Maureen Dowd.”
Gnomon is a big, ambitious book that sometimes trips over its own bigness, but reads like some kind of game of literary telephone played by Philip K. Dick, Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gibson.