“Talk to Me” by TC Boyle: The Chimpanzee in My Mirror


A chimpanzee.  Sensitive and aware.

“Parle-moi” (Talk to Me), by TC Boyle, translated from English (United States) by Bernard Turle, Grasset, “En lettres d’ancre”, 416 p., €25, digital €17.

In recent years, the issue of animal welfare has become a recurring concern in public debate. And, with it, that of their rights. In France, since 2015, the civil code recognizes that “Animals are sentient beings”. If they were not only sentient, but endowed with consciousness, surely this question would have to be looked at with a fresh eye – then little would separate the animal from the human. Are we ready to accept it? This is the question posed, through the medium of fiction, this joyful novel by TC Boyle.

In Talk to me, the prolific American writer depicts the daily life of a small scientific community. With considerable funding for their research, Guy Schermerhorn’s team is experimenting with ways to teach a chimpanzee to speak. His vocal cords don’t allow him to form words, but Sam (that’s the animal’s name) is learning sign language. The project promises to “to revolutionize our conception of animal consciousness… to be able to speak with it, beyond immediate needs and desires (…). Know what he think ». Sam, whom the researcher educates from an early age, gradually enriches his vocabulary and forms sentences. He knows how to answer questions and express choices. He even demonstrates humor, a mark of “high level of consciousness revealed by the interaction between species”. When he disobeys orders, does damage, or injures those caring for him, he seems to « face(er) to his evil deeds, tested(er) remorse, show(er) compassion ».

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If Professor Schermerhorn’s method is reminiscent of experiments carried out since the 1970s – notably with the chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko – it is difficult to assess how scientifically sound his observations are. Regardless, to the lay reader, the way he teaches Sam sign language seems believable. The researchers take care of the chimpanzee day and night, observe its progress and develop a loving relationship with it. Maybe even love. Transgressing, as the professor acknowledges, “the first rule of the behavioral sciences,(who is) not to fall in love with his subject ». When funding dries up, Sam’s fate must be resolved. If, for the directors of the research program, he is no longer anything more than an object of experimentation which we no longer have any use for, except to sell it to biomedical research laboratories, for Aimee, Schermerhorn’s assistant, there is no question of renouncing the relationship she has established with him.

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