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B-i-n-g-o

YOU'RE AN ANIMAL, VISKOVITZ!, By Alessandro Boffa, Translated from the Italian by John Casey with Maria Sanminiatelli, Alfred A. Knopf: 182 pp., $18

June 02, 2002|LAURA CIOLKOWSKI | Laura Ciolkowski is a freelance writer and teaches literature at New York University.

In one of Alessandro Boffa's gloriously wacky Ovidian meditations on sex, death and identity, "You're an Animal, Viskovitz!," the shape-changing creature Viskovitz has metamorphosed into a multicellular organism who meets his Maker and is forced to confront the best and the worst of animal life. In the shape of an unassuming Archeozoic era plasmodium, Viskovitz comes face to face with the "primordial Microbe" and discovers that life as an animal has much to offer him: the opportunity to kill and devour others; the chance to "[f]ind someone you like and exchange some DNA"; and the possibility that one day you will be able to indulge in an entertaining game called "survival of the fittest." If animal life also carries with it the certainty of death, this is part of the fun.

In "You're an Animal, Viskovitz!" first-time author Boffa revels in the bawdy and grim details of the animal kingdom, following Viskovitz as he takes the shape of a magnificent array of animals, from a narcissistic snail and a power-hungry ant to a sex-starved sponge and a heroin-addicted dog. Boffa finds humor and wisdom in Viskovitz the mantis, who pursues his love by using his "erection as a crutch" because his mistress has already eaten three of his four legs, and Viskovitz the scorpion, whose "savage instincts" inevitably lead him to plant his stinger in the skull of his lover, shattering his chances at developing a meaningful, long-term romantic relationship with her.

The animals of "You're an Animal, Viskovitz!" are first and foremost sexual creatures, pleasure-seeking organisms that live and die for the gratifications of the flesh. Viskovitz the laboratory rat is elevated by his people to the place of a modern-day Moses for his miraculous ability to push a lever and part the waters of a toilet. But he ultimately gives up his freedom and his place as "the most intelligent rodent who ever lived" to return to the cage and procure a life of reproductive bliss with a ravishing female rat who is as dumb as a doornail.

The animals of Boffa's salacious menagerie are not just beastly; they are also unmistakably human in their lust for greatness and their eagerness to aspire to higher things. Viskovitz the rodent, who also has shades of Jean-Paul Sartre, is driven by his sense that there is more to life than his laboratory cage and the "endless cycle" of mazes and rewards. He confesses, "The big questions continued to torture me. The whole universe seemed nothing but a series of mazes that led only to other mazes: plumbing, hallways, canals, streets. How far would I have to travel before I found a way out?"

Viskovitz the ant also fights the apparent meaninglessness of his animal existence but in his own way. Seeking immortality, he undertakes a doomed project of distinctly human proportions when he commands his ant army to sculpt "an imperishable testimony to my Myrmidonian greatness" out of a decomposing loaf of bread. The battle between the animal impulses hard-wired into rat, dormouse, dung beetle or bull-elk and the human desire for something better is at the heart of "You're an Animal, Viskovitz!" Boffa takes us on a comic and revelatory romp through the anthills, cages, sewers and dens of the animal world, producing a hilarious portrait of Viskovitz and his friends as they experience the pleasures and dangers of an animal life that all too often resembles our own.

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