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Humanizing and Dehumanizing Red Peter the Ape

“A Report for an Academy” (1917) by Franz Kafka is a short story told by Red Peter, an ape who was captured on Africa’s Gold Coast (now Ghana) and shipped to Europe, and who learned to act like a human to escape captivity. Red Peter tells the story of his transformation from ape to human to a scientific academy in an undetermined European city, observing that it was only when he mastered human language that he was able to secure a way out of his cage on the ship. He puts a seal of sorts on his humanization by writing his story and telling it aloud to a sophisticated audience. This rhetorical situation makes “A Report for an Academy” an intriguing audiobook, and the voice of Martin Reyto reading Ian Johnston’s unabridged translation of Kafka’s short story for Librivox brings Red Peter close.

Although Librivox does not categorize this audiobook as “Dramatized Reading,” Reyto throws himself into his role, and I imagine Red Peter clad in a red satin dressing gown (he has become a music hall star) seated in his heavily upholstered apartment (I wonder if Reyto recorded his voice in a closet) deep in the ancient streets of Vienna or Prague, sheltered from the inclement weather, drinking a strong cordial and perhaps smoking a cigar. At first it was not easy to reconcile my idea of Red Peter with Reyto’s audiobook. For one, I thought Red Peter was younger because he says that he was captured five years before, and Reyto’s voice is clearly the voice of an older man. Secondly, I did not imagine Red Peter so weary. My first impulse was to reject Reyto’s reading of “Report for an Academy” because it seemed counter to how I had imagined the tale, but I listened on and as I did, Red Peter changed in my mind. Reyto’s reading is convincing; his cadence is fittingly mournful, and the harrowing last two sentences of the second to last paragraph are delivered with an awareness of the horror they admit:

When I come home late at night from banquets, from scientific societies, or from social gatherings in someone’s home, a small half-trained female chimpanzee is waiting for me, and I take my pleasure with her the way apes do. During the day I don’t want to see her, for she has in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal. I’m the only one who recognizes that, and I cannot bear it. (Franz Kafka, “A Report for an Academy”)

The sound quality of Reyto’s recording is excellent. There is no echo, and no sound of breathing or background noise (the absence of background noise is good for this story; other stories would be better with background noise). Altogether, listening to this audiobook was not unpleasant but for now, I find that listening to a novel or short story requires more effort than reading it would do. However, humans are adaptable creatures and I trust through practice listening gets easier.

Note: as I explored Librivox in search of an audiobook I wanted to write this blog post on, I was impressed with the great variety of recording qualities, voices and styles. To be honest, most of the audiobooks I started listening to bothered me in one way or another, but one that struck me as an inspiring model – I find I like to hear a variety of narrators – is Wuthering Heights (version 3 dramatic reading).

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