Did you know that the film ‘Congo’, starring Tim Curry, Bruce Campbell and a gorilla, was based on a novel by Robert Harris? It’s true. As I understand it, the novel was quite different from the film. In the original, a mysterious organisation subjected a group of monkeys to strange scientific experiments to try to get them to produce art. It’s pretty weird stuff, and by no means a worthwhile read, even by the standards of Harris’s weak, sloppy oeuvre. Anyway, here’s the first chapter of ‘Congo’, by Robert Harris. It’s quite long, so I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped half way through for a gherkin break or something:
Congo, by R. Harris.
Unsubtle monkeys. Their tongues lashing. Laughing from their guts up. One flicks a missile of shit up in a steep arc. Another stares at it in awe as if it were a shooting star. It lands in his eye. He screams. They scream with laughter. Unsubtle monkeys.
They begin The Dance Of The Gorilla Who Wished He Were A Monkey. They lumber forwards and backwards in rows. They pout and twist. One beats his chest and bows. The others bow to him as they pirouette round in circles which alternately dilate and contract. As it reaches its crescendo they dig snowballs of excrement from the mounds all around them and pound them into the sombre face of the one who is playing King Gorilla. Unsubtle, yes, but at least they are trying.
It is the job of Colin to deliver their injections. Colin got the job because he is ugly. Ugly, that is, to monkeys. His predecessors had suffered for falling within the parameters of the simian ideal of beauty. Paul’s eyes were ripped out as mementoes of a ferocious buggering that the chief perpetrators (‘an unruly minority’ say the directors of the project) still seem to remember with pride, if indeed their construction of a rudimentary display cabinet, in which to present the eyes, from bones, twigs and egg-shells, can be interpreted as an index of their collective sense of achievement. Michael, a veteran of innumerable official and unofficial wars, shrugged nonchalantly after being informed of Paul’s fate, and stepped into the enclosure. The females toppled him and used him as a seven-foot rutting post (‘He was killed almost immediately when his head hit the floor. Thank God for small mercies’). Colin, with his squat porcine face and hairless head is of no interest to the monkeys. The males spit on the floor when he enters the enclosure and the females make retching sounds.
Today they are tired after their dance. Colin moves among them like Florence Nightingale: soundlessly, sexlessly, diligently. Forty-two monkeys. All respond to the injection instantly. Their arms sag and their knees curl but their eyes widen and whiten.
Colin is out in less than ten minutes. The technicians nod at him. ‘Let me show you some photos’ says the director. Moving to Colin’s side, he lifts an elegant leather-bound album from a table and opens it to reveal a sepia portrait of a shit mound. ‘Yes,’ says the director, ‘I know’. He turns the page. Another sepia photograph: the same faeces, but separated into two medium-sized balls.
‘I don’t need to ask you what you think’ says the director. Colin smiles and nods.
‘Well, what do you think?’ says the director, a little agitated.
‘Ohhhh… I don’t know much about art…’
‘..but you know what you like. Yes yes. Never mind the platitudes. What do you think?’
‘Well. The lens is a little out of focus. And better use could have been made of the available light source.’
The director grips the album. His head sinks. ‘You’re right.’ His face tightens. ‘Fuck these fucking monkeys. They’re a bad batch. We could have been miles ahead of where we are now if we had only chosen the monkeys more carefully.’
‘There was no way of knowing how any individual subject would respond to the injections’ interjects a technician, defensively.
‘Stop making excuses for yourselves’ shouts the director, throwing the album across the room. ‘Listen to Colin. He’s the only one here with any sort of disinterested aesthetic judgement.’ After the director paces off the technicians glower at Colin. He looks down embarrassedly and walks out of the observation room to the staff canteen.
Two years later, Colin has been promoted to the position of artistic adviser. He might be ugly, in monkey terms, but he has a keen eye for beauty. This, at least, is the belief of his employers. His job is frustrating. The monkeys’ work has improved, but it is still substandard. ‘Look at this, for instance’, Colin sighs in his monthly report to the directors. He shows them a painting of a mound of shit next to a waste paper bin executed in the Vorticist style.
‘What is wrong with that?’ asks a director, awkwardly conscious of his own philistinism.
‘Humans were doing this 100 years ago. And when they did, they did so energetically, passionately. This is lacklustre.’
‘Have they produced anything you like?’ asks another director.
‘Yes. One of them painted a triptych showing the triumph of the monkey pharaoh upon his return from the bowels of hell.’
‘I see. So there wasn’t any excrement in it?’
‘No, no. There was, there was. As far as I have been able to infer from their artistic efforts, hell is an actual bowel in monkey mythology. So is heaven. Heaven, hell and earth are bowels. Bowels in the body of the universal monkey.’
‘It has three bowels?’
‘So it would seem.’
‘But can we use the painting?’
‘If you like. But it was a fluke. As I understand it you want to have a good body of work ready before you make this project public.’
The directors mutter and grumble. ‘What are we doing wrong?’ one of them asks. ‘Maybe the dosage is wrong’
‘It’s not the dosage’ says the chairman. ‘We need to keep going. Keep forging ahead. By next year we will have an academy of artistic monkeys to match the Royal Academy. And then we will be unstoppable!
(end of chapter 1)