Enter the Aardvark

by Jessica Anthony

Enter the Aardvark
Jessica Anthony
Little, Brown and Company

The Mária Valéria Bridge spans the Danube River, connecting two communities in different counties: Slovakia and Hungary. Built in 1895, it was destroyed at the end of World War I and then again, by retreating Nazis, on the day after Christmas of 1944.

When the beautiful five-arched bridge was finally rebuilt, in 2001, the townspeople on the Slovakian side established an artist-in-residence program by which creators from around the world spend three months “guarding” the bridge against the return of fascism. “The mental act of guarding is more important than the physical,” states the organization that runs the program.

In 2017, Maine author Jess Anthony got a turn guarding the bridge. The assignment soon felt less abstract than advertised. On the Hungarian side, far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was rekindling old fears of nationalist oppression. (Most recently, in May of this year, under Orbán’s conception of “Christian liberty,” his party passed a law ending legal recognition of trans people.)      

In the novel that resulted, Enter the Aardvark, published by Little, Brown and Company this spring, Anthony brilliantly eviscerates the hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement at the heart of the alt-right movement. 

Enter the Aardvark tells two stories. One is that of Virginia Congressman Alexander Paine Wilson, who is in the early stages of planning his re-election campaign. Wilson is a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, fanatical anti-abortionist obsessed with Ronald Reagan. On the morning the novel opens, the Congressman has just received a large and mysterious Fed Ex package from his friend, Greg Tampico, which whom Wilson has been having a surreptitious affair. Upon opening the box, Wilson is astonished to find the stuffed aardvark that previously sat on the dresser across from Tampico’s bed, in view of everything that took place there between them.

The other story is set in Victorian England, in 1875. Titus Downing is “slim, forty and wan … and one of England’s premier taxidermists.” It is Downing who originally received the aardvark from his friend, Sir Richard Ostlet, “a fifty-year-old, richly mustachioed zoological naturalist” who searches for strange mammals in Africa to send home to his good friend Titus in Britain.

This sets the stage for a beguiling and fantastical narrative involving suicides (real or otherwise) and the perils of forbidden love. The two tales are woven together until they begin to resemble a snake swallowing its own tail. Anthony, who teaches at Bates College, is a writer of rare gifts; her prose is wildly imaginative, insightful, and prescient. She treats us to a deeply satisfying exposure of political hypocrisy without indulging in preachiness.

In an interview, Anthony recalled that the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, also happened while she was working on Enter the Aardvark. “Suddenly the novel’s politics — engaging the complicated morality of a closeted GOP congressman — felt abruptly important,” she said. The book became a means to investigate “the problem of politicians who vote one way in public and live another way in private, and the way in which hypocrisy erodes the ability to tell the truth.”

With this fall’s presidential election now fast approaching, Enter the Aardvark becomes more prescient by the day.