Go ape: Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Only the Animals
by Ceridwen Dovey
Published May, 2014
The animals in Franz Kafka’s stories are so uncannily charismatic that they are still among the first we turn to, a century after their creation, in discussions of writing about other species. Of these creatures – the mouse in ‘Josephine the Singer’, the youth-turned-cockchafer in ‘Metamorphosis’, the loquacious canine in ‘Investigations of a Dog’, the Arab-hating jackals of ‘Jackals and Arabs’, the obsessive unnamed animal in ‘The Burrow’ – it is the ape narrator of ‘A Report to an Academy’ who seems to most disturb modern imaginations. Red Peter, who tells his learned audience that he was captured in the Congo and only chose to acquire the dubious accomplishments of humanness in order to gain release from his cage, has appeared in various stage adaptations. He is a presence in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999) and Elizabeth Costello (2003), the novel that reframed the earlier essays; he features in the epigraphs of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2012); and he continues to inspire other talking-ape narratives, such as Sam Lipsyte’s comic ‘Dear Miss Primatologist Lady in the Bushes Sometimes’. (‘To hell with language. I must speak.’)
With their eerie mixture of precision and abstraction, Kafka’s stories open themselves up to allegorical readings. ‘A Report to the Academy’ can be understood as a story that confronts the very enterprise of science with its own object, who speaks back. Or it might be read as a prescient metaphor for human beings caught within the cruel administrative systems of a twentieth century to come. And of course, having been first published alongside ‘Jackals and Arabs’ in the German monthly Der Jude, it offers itself, like so many of Kafka’s stories, as a complex metaphor for Jewish alienation.
Yet when it comes to animal stories in literature, the academic mood is changing. Over the last decade, scholars have been moving away from the assumption that animal protagonists are only furry stand-ins for human dramas. Instead, they are re-reading fiction to trace what it tells us about animals themselves, or about the complex entanglements of our lives with theirs. This turn towards animals is also suffusing other fields, such as history and museology. A recent monograph I read attempted to reconstruct the ‘biographies’ of individual animal specimens in museum collections. Philosophy and science, too, have been worrying away at the question of what distinguishes humans from animals. (Answer: less than we think. More complex answer, via Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben: perhaps only the right we have taken upon ourselves to call other creatures animals.)
By embodying these questions, Red Peter seems an uncanny premonition of this shift. And as the heroine of Elizabeth Costello notes in her lectures, real apes may in fact have inspired Kafka’s story. He was probably aware of the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments into ape intelligence. As director of a research centre on Tenerife set up by the Prussian Academy in 1912, Köhler experimented on caged chimpanzees in order to produce evidence of insight; his methods, which he recounts in The Mentality of Apes – published, like ‘A Report to an Academy’, in 1917 – included denying them food. Read in this way, Kafka’s story foreshadows our increasing unease around animal experimentation – Harry Fowler’s experiments on infant monkeys in the 1960s, for example, were so horrifying that that they threw into doubt any notions of human superiority and proved a turning point in attitudes to the scientific use of apes. ‘A Report to the Academy’ also feels oddly modern because it fits with newly emerging data on animal intelligence, including their ability to think, feel, remember and communicate. Even bioluminescence, it turns out, may constitute a kind of language.
Yet it is also the fact that, for all our interest in animal intelligence, writing that fully inhabits the point of view of animals has remained largely marginalised from ‘serious’ modern literature. Talking or feeling animals have never quite escaped their roots in folklore and children’s stories, or the eighteenth century ‘it-narrative’, a literary sub-genre that gave consciousness to objects – including animals – considered ‘things’. Francis Coventry’s History of Pompey the Little: Or, the Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog (1752), for example, made us privy to the thoughts of its canine hero (‘Must I go daggled thro’ the streets, with a rope about my neck…?’). The form would prove handy for Victorian reformers, like the Quaker Anna Sewell, whose Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse (1877) exposed the hardships of life as a Victorian taxicab-horse and remains a bestselling children’s classic. Yet within the literary canon even Virginia Woolf’s Flush (1933), which assumed the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, was largely dismissed as a curiosity. Save for the odd anomaly like Les Murray’s poem ‘The Cows on Milking Day’, it is still the case that animal consciousness expressing itself is seen – and often presents itself – as a curiosity, as Andrew O’Hagan’s Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010) so archly demonstrated.
On the other hand, fiction about the relationships between animals and humans is a growing genre of seriously-received literary fiction, as evidenced by Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderfully sensitive story of animal-human family ties, and and the shortlisting for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize of Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, a collection of short stories in which we see human celebrities through their interaction with other creatures, as if they themselves are a curious new species.
All of which is a terrifically long preamble to Only the Animals, the second book by 35-year-old, South African-born, Australian- and American-educated Ceridwen Dovey. It follows her coolly confident debut novel, Blood Kin (2007), which captured the voices of three men in the thrall of a dictator in an unnamed country and was published in fifteen languages.
I would not usually begin a review with such an excursion into the history and stories of animals, except for the fact that Dovey’s strange, disturbing and often moving book seems to demand it. Only the Animals consists of ten stories arranged chronologically from 1892 to 2006, each of which is recounted by an animal that has died as a casualty of human conflict. Its engaging animal narrators include a young elephant from Mozambique, a bear that has starved to death in 1992 in the Sarajevo zoo, and even a horny, existentially questing mussel killed at Pearl Harbour. Their voices are alternately tender, curious, joyous and puzzled, though unburdened by anger or our human fear of death, which gives them a piercing clarity. Dovey writes with the same easy, muscular lucidity in this book as in her first; and both place her as part of a transnational generation of younger authors, such as Nam Le, Eleanor Catton, Anthony Marra, Hanya Yanagihara and Katie Kitamura (to name only a handful), whose work stakes a claim, via flamboyant feats of novelistic imagination, for extending fiction’s borders past their own geography and time.
Only the Animals has been received enthusiastically so far by Australian reviewers, who have celebrated it as a book that gives animals a voice, while noticing that this lingeringly odd work is a volatile mix of story, essay and themes that give it the heft of a novel. Yet few have remarked on the weirdly unstable feeling that its historical and literary mash-ups induce: a sense of not quite knowing how to read these testaments. Disquiet sets in from the moment we learn that it is not just each animal but its ‘soul’ that tells its story. This is a move that, in a book of serious literary intent, issues a direct challenge to the reader, for even those of us who believe in animal consciousness and emotion may balk at such an old-fashioned concept (albeit one specifically denied to animals in Christian doctrine). And even if we accept this as a deliberate intervention into that history, it seems an odd fit with the book’s distinctly postmodern bent, since one of the central bits of business associated with postmodernity has been rendering obsolete the idea of a discrete human soul. Given that each story is subtitled ‘Soul of a Camel’ (or Dog, or Parrot, or Elephant, or Mussel), this clever and knowing book instantly sets up a sense of category confusion – one that compounds through the collection.
This can be disconcerting, to say the least. Take the collection’s first story, ‘The Bones: Soul of Camel Died 1892, Australia’. It is Christmas day and the camel is sitting around a campfire with its owner ‘Mister Mitchell’ and the writer Henry Lawson, all of them drunk on rum. A large goanna has been stalking the group for days, attracted to the stolen bones of an Aboriginal ‘queen’, which Mitchell has been carrying around in a sack. The human conflict determining the story, in this instance, is Australia’s savage frontier war (or wars), and the scene seems to be set for Dovey to insert animal suffering into the catalogue of colonial exploitation. Yet the reader quickly realises that this scenario – Christmas, the goanna, the stolen bones – is the same as Lawson’s ‘The Bush Undertaker’, one of Australia’s most iconic stories.
To add to the sense of queasy inside-outness, the story the camel goes on to recount skews the one we know. In Lawson’s version, a peculiar old man is juggling two bodies. He has just raked the bones from a ‘blackfellow’s grave about which he was curious’ and put them into a sack to sell when he comes across the desiccated corpse of another old-timer, dead of thirst beneath a tree – which, with no awareness of the irony, he also struggles to carry home to his slab hut for a decent burial. In Dovey’s version, Lawson tells the camel that Mitchell – who shares his name, disconcertingly, with a famous Australian explorer and a recurrent character in Lawson’s fiction – grew up on the New South Wales goldfields. When Mitchell’s father consulted a medium, Lawson continues, she shocked him by speaking of bodies burned in a fire at Hospital Creek, the real site, near Brewarrina, of an infamous massacre of up to 400 Aboriginal people. Mitchell has stolen the bones of an ancient Indigenous woman because he believes they will protect him from their ghosts.
It is at this point that the camel claims his right (and by inference the right of the other animal narrators) to stories of his own:
I too have ghosts in my past, I wanted to tell Henry Lawson. The ghosts of the other camels who were shipped with me from our birthplace on the island of Tenerife, sold along with our handlers … to an Englishman on his way to Australia.
But just as our sympathies are again fully engaged, Dovey muddies the waters again. The camel disingenuously asserts his innocence of this particular conflict: ‘I had only arrived a few years ago, how could I have done anything wrong?’
Clearly these stories won’t be straightforward appropriations that fully enter the world of their literary predecessors, like Timothy Findley’s groundbreaking Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), which retold the Book of Genesis entirely from the point of view of the women and animals imprisoned on the ark by a tyrannical Noah. Instead, by incorporating and reinventing its own literary and historical contexts, ‘The Bones’ seems almost designed to send a reader like me a little batty; I have to confess to spending as much time going back to my Lawson and history textbooks as I did reading this story, feeling as if I was trying to tune a radio caught between different stations. Imagine my distraction, then, when toward the end of the story Lawson produces his notebook to entertain the camel with the story of the lost stockman, Ebenezer Davis. Scrawled on a note, he tells the camel, were his last words: My ey Dassels, My tong burn. These were, in fact, the real words, scratched onto a water bottle, of a farmer called Coulthard – lost while exploring for new pasture north of Adelaide – whose desiccated body was found in 1858. And Coulthard is thought to be the inspiration for ‘The Bush Undertaker’.
What are we to make of the change of name? If it is simply the case that this whole incident will enter Lawson’s diary and turn into his famous story, why make the switch? And what are we to think of the ending of ‘The Bones’, when a drunken Mitchell shoots the camel, who finds himself mouthing Coulthard’s last words as his own as he dies? ‘Mister Lawson, be careful,’ he ends. ‘You’re not the only one who can tell a good story about death in the bush, about the death of animals.’ At one level, it reads like a mission statement for the book: its animal narrators will be given the agency to speak their own stories. It can also be read as a boast: this book will take on the classics and match them. But isn’t it also a kind of warning, not just to Lawson but to readers too: proceed with caution?
It’s a little unfair to spend so much time on this story, which is the collection’s least successful, because it bears the burden of also standing as a kind of preface. Those that follow are just as inventive in their twisting together of the historical and literary, but they are often less jarring, the emotional weight of character and story balancing self-consciousness. Their narrators include Colette’s cat, lost on the World War I battlefields of France; a high-ranking Nazi officer’s German Shepherd, tutored in Buddhism and turned unwillingly into a suicide bomber in the German forests; and a questing middle-aged British woman’s parrot left behind in her Lebanon apartment (‘Died 2006’). In ‘Plautus: A Memoir’, an old tortoise recounts his passage from Tolstoy’s family home (where daughter Alexandra reads him Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1892 speech to the US Senate urging women’s rights) to the home of Virginia Woolf (where she is busy writing Flush), and eventually into the Soviet Space Program (‘Died, 1968, Space’). In ‘A Letter to Sylvia Plath’, the only other weak story in the collection, a female dolphin in the US Navy Marine Mammal Program composes an imaginary letter to Plath about writing, animals as symbols, and poetry’s capacity to express a deeper self.
Each story is also preceded by quotes from the literature and philosophy of animals: lecturer Boria Sax’s – ‘What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.’ – gives the collection its title. Dovey’s ambitious reach is also reflected in her stories’ formal variation, which embraces the epistolary, memoir and pastiche. My flat-out favourite was Dovey’s nimble imitation of Kerouac, voiced by a mussel, in ‘Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me’ (‘Died 1941, United States of America’). ‘I first met Muss right when I’d decided that everything was dead, when I was sick of putting down the world with theories,’ this story begins, and it is a tribute to Dovey’s skills that she not only makes utterly credible the transformation of Dean Moriarty / Neal Cassady into an oversexed mollusc, but that her story of western migration from east coast New York waters to the Pacific – a migration that will end badly on the hull of a navy vessel in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour – is by turns funny and oddly touching.
One of the story’s pleasures – as with all Dovey’s stories – is its sense of biological veracity: ‘The temperature and salinity change [of the Pacific waters] acted as a stimulus to a mass joyous spontaneous spawning.’ Another pleasure of the collection is the attention it gives to female animals, so often reduced to sheer maternal instinct or acquiescent vessels of the male sex drive in human projections of ‘natural’ behaviour. Collette’s cat is a singularly affecting creature, her voice as wise and tender as her mistress’s, as she contemplates the soldiers’ sufferings and resigns herself to her own.
And of course, in the midst of these stories, we find Kafka’s talking ape (‘Red Peter’s Little Lady: Soul of Chimpanzee. Died, 1917, Germany’). There is a small literary puzzle already present in this date for the alert reader. If Red Peter was ‘alive’ in 1917 to tell his story in Kafka’s ‘Report’, what has happened to him so soon after its end? Dovey’s story, which consists of a series of letters, takes us back to 1915. The first correspondence is between Peter and Frau Oberndorff, the wife of the animal trainer at the Hamburg Zoological Gardens. It concerns a little female ape, who is being schooled as a fit companion for Peter. Again, readers may recall that Kafka ends his story with her. ‘When I come home late at night from banquets, from scientific receptions, from social gatherings,’ Red Peter recounts, ‘there sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do. By day I cannot bear to see it, but I do, and I cannot bear it.’ Significantly, Red Peter presents sex as a return to his ape nature, though the story hints that it may be his exploitation of his companion and his ability to justify it within a scientific context – ‘I am only imparting knowledge … only making a report’ – that are his most human traits.
Dovey’s Red Peter is a condescending patriarch, rather too happy to have selected for him a wife who ‘did exceptionally well on the initial aptitude tests’. In acquiring humanity, Peter has taken upon himself, like Robinson Crusoe, the right to name Hazel; but Dovey also makes it clear that because humanity is conflated with manhood, he has also assumed the right to see her as an object. As he writes in the letter to his wife, for Frau Oberndorff to read out, ‘I chose this name for you at our first encounter at the zoological garden, many years ago now, for the colour of your eyes in your wide empty face.’
It is worth noting that in Kafka’s story the Hamburg gardens so horrify Peter that he choses to become a human-ape performing in music halls rather than end up there. But the zoo, it seems, is good enough for Hazel. Lying is another skill Peter has acquired. In Kafka’s story, Red Peter complains that he was named after the ‘large, naked, red scar’ he sustained in Africa during his capture; in Dovey’s, he offers Hazel and Frau Oberndorff the more self-aggrandising version: he was named for the red of his fur and his first trainer.
The letters Hazel dictates back to Frau Oberndorff are at once funny and pathetic: ‘Dear Red Peter, What use is this body to anyone? Why can my nostrils not be small as pips? Why does hair grow on my back?’ But regardless of her efforts, it soon becomes clear that Red Peter’s tastes have evolved beyond a monkey mate. It is Frau Oberndorff – Evelyn – he wants. In fact, she and Red Peter already have a little history, which makes the correspondence around Hazel, in its varying levels of knowingness, deeply perverse in the mode of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ (also epistolary) novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1872). When Hazel, tragically and inevitably, finds out about their growing affair she withdraws to her cage to starve herself.
This would be a quietly devastating postscript to Kafka’s story, but again Dovey adds more layers. It is World War I and Hamburg is in the grip of terrible rationing. The zoo’s owner, Herr Hagenback (a real historical figure), has fled to Africa, leaving it without funds; he is also the Academy member who first suggested Red Peter take a wife. Kafka appears in the story too, as a friend of Peter’s first trainer in Prague: ‘the only one who looked me directly in the eye, but it was no moment of communion,’ Red Peter writes, though he seems to have inherited the real author’s self-denying dietary habits. And of course, in its theme of starvation, the story sets up a conversation with another Kafka story. This is clear long before Hazel insists that Frau Oberndorff puts a sign on her cage: THE HUNGER ARTIST.
I read ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’ the same way I read most of the other stories in this collection – wanting to be in thrall to its voice, but distracted by the ‘noise’ of so many narrative and historical layers. Consequently, throughout Only the Animals, a host of questions kept pressing in on my relationship with each animal narrator. How, for example, are the animals so versed in human language and culture (and how could a dolphin get hold of Plath)? With all their historical and philosophical knowledge, why can’t they grasp their own small extinctions as part of more devastating patterns of animal deaths?
One can see this – as I will admit I did on reading the first stories – as the unintentional fallout of too much research. Yet Dovey seems to anticipate this very reaction in another narrative layer I haven’t yet mentioned: maps of fake constellations that precede these stories, each wrenching a handful of stars into the shape of its animal narrator. Star maps bothered me terribly as a child because of their wilful proximation. And in Dovey’s book they continue this unsettling magic, alerting us to her intention, beyond the stories’ apparent emotional transparency, to make us entertain exactly the kinds of distractions and second-guessing that took hold of me while reading the book.
The energy and disturbing creativity of Only the Animals comes from a grand ambition to do nothing less than to make animals speak out of and reflect the many histories – literary, biological, scientific and human – they have occupied. But the ambition does not stop there. These stories are hybrids, and carry the unease that hybrids always conjure in us. The imprecise fit of their layers suggests how proximately and incompletely we know other creatures, in spite of all the things we think we know about them. Although I often wished, as a reader, for a more seamless book, I came to the conclusion that Only the Animals does more useful work in the world by making the reader’s feelings flare, ebb and turn back on themselves. As a kind of hybrid, it leaves the human reader with an uncomfortable sense of species terror: a sense of how closely, and awfully, our lives are caught up with animals and how even our deepest sympathy may not be free of destructive human impulse.
On putting the book down, I remembered that the animal story of Kafka’s I have always found the most disturbing is his sinister and stubbornly gnomic micro-fiction, ‘A Crossbreed’ (strangely subtitled ‘A Sport’), in which a man describes life with a peculiar creature he has inherited that is half-kitten, half-lamb. ‘Pressed against me it is happiest,’ he writes. When he cries, it seems to cry; when it peers into his face and he pretends to understand, it capers with joy, to the point that he is forced to wonder if it has ‘the ambitions of a human being’. And yet he also finds himself convinced that the animal wants to die, that the butcher’s knife might be a relief. Sometimes, the story concludes, it ‘gazes at me with a look of human understanding, challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking’.