Mr. Thundermug is the inventive, entertaining, and—against all odds—poignant story of an animal who acquires the ability to eloquently speak human language. Using his own beautiful, eerie lithograph illustrations, Cornelius Medvei places us in a vivid world that is both familiar and alien. It's a world in which Mr. Thundermug and his family take up occupancy in an abandoned apartment building. On the roof of that building, Mr. Thundermug gazes at the heavens and thinks deep thoughts while his wife picks bugs off him and eats them. Understandably, he's somewhat confused by his complex existence as a fluent member of human society who has the essential nature of a more ancient species, but he assimilates as best he can. His worlds inevitably collide, and he is eventually brought to court for a petty crime and asked to defend himself in impossible ways.
Simultaneously playful and foreboding, Mr. Thundermug announces the arrival of a bold and imaginative talent.
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About the Author
Cornelius Medvei was born in 1977 and grew up in the east of England. He studied modern languages at Oxford University and worked in China for a year and a half as a teacher. He now lives in London. This is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
Mr. ThundermugA Novel
By Cornelius Medvei
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Cornelius Medvei
All right reserved.
One rainy night not long ago, a curious report appeared in the late edition of our city's evening newspaper. Under the headline 'monkey professor dies', it was the obituary notice for an academic, one Dr Alphonsus Rotz. The article went like this:
Dr Alphonsus Rotz, who has died at the age of 60, was one of the most original zoologists of recent years. He will be best remembered for his fieldwork with primates.
After taking a degree in zoology, followed by a Ph.D. on 'Posterior Pigmentation in the Mandrill', Alphonsus Rotz was appointed Extraordinary Research Fellow at the National University, allowing him a generous stipend that provided the basis for a series of audacious research projects.
Probably the most famous of these projects was his 19-year period of unorthodox and, at times, controversial field research on the silver-maned baboons of the Ethiopian savannah. He went there with a party of graduate students, which he was supervising on a summer project. At the end of the summer his students returned home, but Rotz decided to stay. Left alone, he extended the theory of total immersion fieldwork, already practised widely by forward-thinking anthropologists. He became part of the baboon colony, living in a cave in the rocks, sharing their diet of roots and insects and taking part in their courtshiprituals. Years later, Dr Rotz recalled in an interview how he had gained the creatures' trust so completely that baboon mothers would give him their offspring to suckle when they went out hunting.
But Dr Rotz's uncompromising approach to fieldwork had its drawbacks. Cut off as he was, the project leaders heard from him less and less frequently, and eventually Rotz lost all contact with the academic establishment. Assuming he was dead, the university stopped paying his stipend.
However, Dr Rotz was not dead, and he had even been contributing sporadically to a journal published in Addis Ababa. The back numbers of this publication give an idea of the work he was engaged in among the baboons. At first he was interested in routine questions, such as the animals' diet and etiquette, and the significance of the baboon in local folklore. Later articles contained outlines for a theory on the origin of language, and a detailed study of baboon vocal cords.
After nineteen years Dr Rotz left the savannah abruptly and returned home, to the astonishment and delight of his colleagues. He was unkempt and incoherent, and he brought with him only a small package containing his journals and a few mementos--a lock of pungent-smelling hair and a greasy photograph of a baboon baring its teeth. It was never fully explained why he had chosen, after all this time, to break off his research and come home. All Dr Rotz would say was that he had left for 'personal reasons'.
Only at this point in the article did Dr Rotz's--admittedly tenuous--connection with our city become clear. When he returned from Africa, his former colleagues were naturally pleased to see that he was still alive, but having once stopped his stipend the university authorities were reluctant to start paying it again, and so Dr Rotz left to take up the position of visiting professor of zoology at the Central University of our city. The obituary continued:
During this time he published a series of papers which synthesized his findings and his theories from his work among the baboons. One of these papers gained particular notoriety in academic circles. In it he described how he had run a kind of hedge school for baboons with the purpose of identifying the most intelligent animals at an early age. He had worked with one unusually gifted female over a period of several years and eventually succeeded--so he claimed--in teaching the animal to speak. The appendix to this paper contained a lyrical account, quite unsuitable for an academic essay, of their long discussions of German Romantic poetry, sitting on a rocky outcrop in the moonlight, overlooking the boundless savannah.
After some deliberation the university authorities agreed to publish this paper, but in the storm of controversy that followed its appearance, they must have regretted their decision. When Dr Rotz proposed a further article entitled 'Some thoughts on Homo-baboonus', which was to consider the possibility of cross-breeding between humans and baboons, they turned him down without hesitation.
Dr Rotz had his new paper published privately, but after this it was almost impossible for him to find another job in a university. When his visiting professorship came to an end he returned to his home town, where he worked in a primary school. He taught arithmetic, geography and, when no other teachers were looking, Customs of the Great Apes. This made him very popular with the children. His standing rose within the school, and eventually he married the headmistress.
The obvious happiness which this marriage brought him, and his fruitful association with the Primate Society, made the last years of his life a period of quiet productivity. It was during this period that he invented the pongoid exfoliator, a device for removing unwanted skin from the feet of gorillas and chimpanzees.
At the time of his death, Dr Rotz was on an expedition in Brazil, sponsored by the Primate Society. He was leading a team of researchers investigating one of the largest macaque colonies of the Orinoco when he went missing early last week. The exact circumstances of his death are still unclear, as his body has not been recovered. However, remnants of clothing found in the spot where he disappeared indicate that he was probably eaten by a jaguar.
He is survived by his headmistress; there were no children.
Few people stop to buy the evening paper on a rainy night, and few of them read as far as the obituaries, which appear on the same page as the standing apology for errors and the chess problem, so the number of people in our . . .
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Walking into my local dealer's shop is a dangerous thing for me. I have learned to remain at the front counter and not wander about the aisles as I inevitably find books I "just have to have!" when I visit friends there. This discipline has helped me refrain from purchasing a book each visit, but it is not foolproof, as I found this book displayed at the front desk and I "just had to have it." The cover of this small, quickly read, book is an image of a Baboon, in a smoking jacket, holding a banana, with the subtitle "Mr. Thundermug is a Baboon." One can see how my interest was peaked. Mr. Medvei, according to the biographical material on the dust jacket, studied modern languages at Oxford, taught in China for 18 months and returned to England to write this well-timed adult fable. His choosing to make this tale about a baboon who "spontaneously" learns to talk and the impact that has upon society and culture is in equal parts, it seems, autobiography and social commentary. Mr. Medvei creates Mr. Thundermug, a name chosen by the baboon, as a primate who is intelligent while maintaining his simian self, even while acting with human characteristics. Mr. Thundermug is who he is, a baboon who speaks, reads, ponders but still acts like a baboon - eating insects, grooming his mate, beating his chest to communicate with his family (who cannot speak English). Such a being creates the tension of social commentary that carries the story. It is probable this fable not could have been more timely written. Mr. Medvei returning to a "home" culture after experiencing a year and a half of a totally different one in China (hence his feeling like a new comer) and the influx of immigrants into Western countries (how does one fit into a new culture) are but two of the timely indicators of the need for this story to be told. The alienation of individuals from community is pandemic in our society - the Internet, cell phones, email, instant messaging, "blue-toothing" all help create the illusion of connection but only widens the gap between people seeking to "keep in touch." This fable magnifies this isolation and desire/fear of being known in bringing one who is truly "Other" into a sharp focus in the contrast between being familiar (language, thought, manners, etc.) and alien (simian). Mr. Thundermug causes the reader to address the reality that community is relatively easy when homogenous (there is the expectation that the more homogenous are the community members are to each other the more harmony within the community). When that community is confronted withe variety, it takes genuine, committed work to be accepting of all its members and to maintain a sense of cohesion. What a community does with those it considers "other" is as definitive of that community as what it does with those within its ranks. By the end of this short tale (it could be read in an hour), Mr. Thundermug has found acceptance but at a tremendous cost. To be true to himself he must sacrifice something precious to him. To be included in society, a likewise precious sacrifice is demanded. Mr. Thundermug learns that to speak is to risk being known. These are the same choices all of us makes daily.