At the beginning of Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, four-year-old Romochka wakes up in a squalid Russian apartment block, its power off and residents gone, to find his uncle has abandoned him. Over three and a half days everything familiar falls away, until he puts on as many clothes as he can find and ventures out into the streets. There he sees a large yellow dog. A double row of breasts on her belly swings as she walks, moving easily through the snow. He follows her down an alley and dozes off, only to find himself baled up by two more of the city’s strays. The mother dog appears again. She looks at him ‘as if waiting: head high, tail low’.
‘Doggie,’ he says, and she tips her head very slightly to one side. The other dogs growl but she growls back, a low sound that ‘travelled through him and was aimed at them’. He reaches her and puts out his hands. She flinches, hesitates, sniffs his face, his chest, his mittens. The other dogs come up, ‘heads weaving low’, to lick her face. She licks them, licks Romochka’s face, and they set off. He is now part of the pack.
For the rest of the novel, Romochka shares the life of these feral dogs on the city’s fringe. The yellow dog brings him to her lair beneath an abandoned church to join her puppies: Grey Brother, White Sister, Brown Brother and Black Sister. He learns dog etiquette, the boundaries between his pack and others, and sometimes uses his vestigial human skills to scavenge and protect the pack from other humans. Life is harsh but filled with ritual, and the hot press of bodies in the nest. The yellow dog fights for her clan. Some die, more puppies are born. Eventually she finds another human ‘puppy’ for Romochka, which will test the limits of his dog self.
I read Dog Boy in the summer of 2009 and it thrilled me. The ennui I had been feeling about literary fiction lifted. How long since a novel had moved me, or made me care so desperately about the fate of its characters? But what did it mean that they were almost all non-human?
There is an echo of Hornung’s novel in the opening pages of Anna Krien’s recent Quarterly Essay, Us and Them (2011), which explores our treatment of animals with precise ambivalence. At midnight, as her tram reaches its last stop in Melbourne’s north, two dull-eyed men block the tracks and demand to be taken to the city. Slipping into the dark streets, where she knows a pack of men has attacked another woman, Krien comes across a large black dog. It walks her to her gate and leaves, a strangely gentlemanly apparition of the night.
Animals, it occurs to me, have been keeping us unnerving company in our recent fiction – most obviously, in J.M. Coetzee’s novels, preoccupied by their industrial slaughter. But also Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (2008); Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (2011); and, more obliquely, Deborah Robertson’s Sweet Old World (2012). I was thinking only last week that I could hardly imagine some of our more humanist writers, like Frank Moorhouse or Helen Garner, writing about pets – then opened my latest copy of the Monthly to discover Garner’s sharp piece about a red heeler who drops his chivalrous facade.
If, as Coetzee has written, animals now ‘have only their silence left with which to confront us’, they have been shadowing our literature lately with a quiet force.
An animal lover, I’m always on the alert for animal characters in novels – and alive, as a writer, to the tricks authors play with them.
Writers have long been wise to the usefulness of animals to enrich their stories, whether as the agents of wonder and estrangement in fairytales or amplifiers of emotion. Although I now find many things about Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) unpleasant, one of my favourite scenes in a novel remains the death of Karenin the dog towards its end. Misidentified ‘male’ as a puppy and named after Anna Karenina’s husband, the female half Saint Bernard has become the only source of uncontentious love for her owner Tereza, ground down by her partner Tomas’s womanising. When it becomes clear that ex-doctor Tomas will have to put Karenin down, Tereza has an oddly moving dream, in which the surprised dog gives birth to a bread roll and a bee. Through this dream’s sweet absurdity, the aggressively intellectual Czech writer allows a shaft of warmth into his essayistic novel. The pathos of Karenin’s death also acts proleptically, to give poignancy to Tereza and Tomas’s death in a car accident, not too many pages later. Similarly, in Timothy Findley’s satire about a tyrannical Noah and his ark, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), it is the blind cat Mottyl, looking after her litter, who provides this novel’s only moments of tenderness.
In Australian Brenda Walker’s coolly oblique novels, animals pick up emotional weight for her characters, standing in for unsaid feelings. In The Wing of Night (2006), an isolated woman hand-rears a crow, which becomes the vital agent of an optimistic affection the characters, scarred by the Great War, can barely bring themselves to feel. Most memorably, in Poe’s Cat (1999), Walker depicts a haunting relationship between an orangutan – inspiration for Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue – and a sailor. In their cabin at night the ape gently plaits the sailor’s hair.
It is the strangeness, the freshness given them by their innocence of language, that makes these animal–human relationships so touching, and bypasses any suspicion of emotional manipulation on the part of the reader. Perhaps we also have a native sense that with animals we’re living on extended credit: we rarely deserve the friendship they give us.
In the case of Dog Boy, entering the animal kingdom allows Hornung to move her novel away from what we might glibly call first world problems: the subtle, tiny consumer discriminations that constitute so much of modern life. Novelist Jonathan Franzen has bemoaned the difficulties presented to the social novel by lives lived across so many places and choices: his own rather anxious fiction demonstrates the difficulties of narrative containment. But Dog Boy’s pleasures are closer to those of the pre-twentieth-century novel, where characters’ progress, even survival, often depends on understanding the highly ritualised manners of their village. At the same time, the removal of so much speech from its world forces Hornung to dig deep with her characterisation. She is alert to every nuance of gesture, every tail lift and sniff: and so her book has far more sharply defined, affecting characters than some vast social novels of Australian life.
But of course, Dog Boy isn’t about a purely animal world. The yellow dog once had owners. When she hears Romochka’s voice, naming her as animal, this vestigial memory of having been with people seems to motivate her to adopt him. And Romochka’s story is gripping because it draws on a rich folk and written history of feral children that perhaps reaches its high point in Werner Herzog’s 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
Storytellers have often found the most disturbing narrative power – think of Beauty’s beast, especially as depicted in Jean Cocteau’s mesmerising film, or Franz Kafka’s Red Peter – in blurring the boundaries between animal and human. In Kafka’s story ‘A Report to the Academy’ (1917), the ape Red Peter (possibly an orangutan, although this is never specified) speaks with astonishing eloquence before an unnamed academy about his acquisition of human behaviour and language. He reveals that he only did this in order to escape the cage in which his human captors had trapped him. Kafka’s story is a sly assault on the very gravitational hold of our genetics: if all this is all an act, what is genuinely human?
Kafka’s story recalls in turn Carolus Linnaeus’s statement, ‘Surely Descartes never saw an ape’. Who, reading this doesn’t feel a little love for the eighteenth-century botanist and zoologist, who possessed a private zoo in Uppsala (which included a small Barbary ape named Diana)? Linnaeus defied Biblical prohibition to classify both humans and apes as primates. ‘[J]ust as the shoemaker sticks to his last,’ he wrote, ‘I must remain in my workshop and consider man and his body as a naturalist, who hardly knows a single distinguishing mark which separates man from the apes, save for the fact that the latter have an empty space between their canines and their other teeth.’
In fact, according to philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida (who begins his investigation by asking charmingly why undressing in front of his cat makes him embarrassed), our humanity is a frail construction. In The Open and The Animal That Therefore I Am, each picks away at the complexities of denial; the philosophical feints we use to shore it up. What precisely distinguishes us from animals – they don’t die as we do? Or suffer the same consciousness of death? (But they suffer, don’t they, asked Bentham: isn’t that more to the point?) They don’t use language? (Though we used to believe, until the eighteenth century, that animals could talk.)
Returning to Linnaeus again, Agamben notes that the only distinguishing feature the scientist could write next to his Homo sapiens was nosce te ipsum: ‘know yourself’. In other words, Agamben suggests, the chief distinguishing feature of our humanness might lie in our being geared to continually distinguish and assert our difference from animals. For Derrida, too, our defining characteristic may be the vast hubris of calling every other living creature ‘animal’, an authority only humans have given themselves. It is this possibility, crouched in some of our most powerful myths, that makes Hornung’s novel so gripping; especially in its final pages when, in order to rejoin the human race, her ‘awful unimaginable boy’ makes a savage choice. Is it an animal or human one?
‘The dog is not a human being … right?’ was the title of novelist Charlotte Wood’s article in the Good Weekend last year blasting the ‘anthropomorphic slush’ flooding our culture. On the one hand, we foist cutesiness on some animals (LOL cats, the wild animals of children’s toys and cartoons), while others face industrial torture and obliteration. In fact, she wrote, the two go hand in hand, because of our ‘grossly sentimental failure to embrace the “other-ness” of animals … to imagine them as anything but approximations of ourselves.’ The more we sentimentalise, the more we brutalise: we either try to force them to be like us, or see them as so unlike us as to be aliens, undeserving of any rights at all.
I agree. But what does this mean for our writers? What’s most noticeable about the recent Australian novels I’ve mentioned is that there is nothing remotely anthropomorphic or sentimental about them. Each tries to meet the animal as other with imagination. But what interests me is how each author takes a very different approach with different effects.
Across Coetzee’s oeuvre, dogs are recurring symbols of mute suffering; even in his novels like The Master of Petersburg (1994) not directly concerned with animal rights they very often appear like those tiny figures of the damned in medieval paintings, anonymous flesh subject to the piercings and fires of hell. In Disgrace (1999), the piling bodies of unwanted dogs at a veterinary clinic are an abject symbol of a South Africa made disgraceful by apartheid: but they also offer the hero David Lurie the chance for a kind of space of atonement beyond the limits of language, as he tends them and eases their pain. Animals have a more abstract existence in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), which incorporates his ficto-critical 1997 Princeton lectures The Lives of Animals: a significant part of which is a supple, philosophically dense – albeit emotionally cryptic – interrogation of industrial slaughter.
While one can say little about Coetzee’s immensely complex work in several paragraphs, it is perhaps enough to point out that animals, though their silence is respected and their suffering skillfully dissected, can be overwhelmed as a real presence by its airless Calvinism: by the deep sense that evil and suffering are the conditions of human existence, without the consolations of faith or fellowship. We are a disgrace as a species, Coetzee’s novels repeatedly show us – but it is often hard to see their animal subjects through their human shame.
But this is something that the painfully self-aware authorial voice of Coetzee’s ‘autobiographical’ fictions seems aware of, an ironic critique that becomes part of the work. There is a marvellous comic moment in Summertime, which carries echoes of the bittersweet mushrooming scene in Anna Karenina: ‘Coetzee’, watching a sublime dusk in the Karoo with his childhood soulmate, bores and alienates her by blundering on about his belief in a vengeful locust god, and the melancholy awareness of death among bonobo chimps. Perhaps Coetzee’s point may be that we can’t see beyond ourselves. Though we can, perhaps, jolt our own hearts with our captives’ awful silence.
In Animal People, Charlotte Wood uses a deliberate distancing strategy to show how madly we overinvest in our animal captives. Middle-aged slacker Stephen can’t understand ‘animal people’, though he works in a zoo; but he’s not much of a people person either. Throughout a single day he runs much of the argument of Wood’s Good Weekend piece through his head, though more sourly and obsessively: the awfulness of fur and dander, the hypocrisy of pampered dogs in his girlfriend’s suburb wearing Swarovski collars while in his the homeless roam. Wood certainly makes the fact of animals’ otherness clear, but her novel’s limited point of view makes it almost impossible for her to imagine for us its depth or textures. True, Animal People wrenches Stephen towards a kind of rapprochement with one pet at least in its final pages. But the novel leaves the overall impression that the lives of our animal others are rather joyless (though surely their capacity for unselfconscious joy is one of the other reasons we love them) – a problem more than a rich enigma.
Michelle de Kretser also keeps a distance between the reader and lost dog of her title, which is referred to only as ‘the dog’ throughout. The framing narrative of the book is the story of a young academic’s five-day search for his city pet, gone missing in the bush. But it winds itself around an interior story whose complications are almost the antithesis of Dog Boy’s containment, and much closer to Franzen’s interest in the spread out, tentacular nature of modern life: this story incorporates a dying parent, a long-cold missing persons case, the Melbourne art scene, academia, and (the owner’s thesis is on Henry James) the possibilities of fiction.
There is also a hint of anti-anthropomorphism in The Lost Dog, albeit more ironic than Wood’s: as James Ley put it in a review, ‘Australia, once the country of lost children, is now a land of missing pets.’ Nevertheless, de Kretser’s dog is a more joyous creature. While the book certainly doesn’t quite go as far as to suggest that pets are a balm to our modern ills, it is sensitive to the increasingly complex emotional needs animals fill. The dog, as only half-other, also seems to have the potential to move across and make visible the structures humans live by; and to have powers of perception that we perhaps lack. I would almost put money on de Kretser having John Berger’s seminal essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in mind, in which he celebrates dogs’ positive powers of otherness: with their running legs and sharp noses, they are ‘natural frontier experts’.
Nothing is more estranged from the animal than meat; or so you might think. In Deborah Robertson’s Sweet Old World, set in rural Ireland, David is a 43-year-old journalist who used to work for the British agricultural press. At one point in the novel he remembers a turkey-plucking contest run by a large farm: ‘a curiously silent affair’ about tearing as little flesh as possible. As the terrified turkeys are being killed behind the stage for the pluckers, the journalists notice an acrid smell. ‘The antibiotics and hormones – all the crap coming out of their blood,’ one says.
The sheer forensic accuracy of Robertson’s description stuck with me long after I finished her book. This kind of clear-eyed description of the grim and largely hidden lives of animals, as colonised by us, can be another way of honouring their otherness. This is not about invoking any ‘natural’ or organic differences from us, but unsentimentally reconstructing their terrifying, and parallel, existence. This is a strategy Krien uses very effectively at several points in Us and Them. On the death of a cow, for example: ‘Her legs start to move, as if swimming, her nerves doing a final shimmery dance, and then comes a low growl, her body moves, rolls slightly, and the men re-adjust their hands, and then, finally, the air is expelled, past her vocal cords, giving them one last tinkle, like wind chimes.’
But Sweet Old World ties factory farming to subject matter that would seem light years away – David’s secret yearning for a child. Just to put the two together is shocking: the book jolts each away from any sense of natural order, which is part of its originality. While David’s past life is only a small part of this story, which revolves around his relationship with a damaged girl and her mother, Robertson’s writing continually closes in on the idea that, for all the association of women with blood and instinct, men are less far from it than they think; or from the world’s deep pockets of suffering and pain. There is a kind of democratic impulse at work here: the animal flows into the human, and renders the whole world newly tender. An awareness of the animal in us is another way to avoid anthropomorphising.
Then there are those writers who try to channel the very consciousness of other creatures. Before Dog Boy, Hornung published short stories from, among others, the point of view of a mother fox, a cow in an abattoir, and a caged cockatoo; part of a planned collection, she told an interviewer, called The Sad Book of Animals. She did this to ‘test her imagination’.
To try to write ‘as’ an animal, to approximate another sensorium is to try to imagine the almost unimaginable. How does it feel to live inside another hide or fur – or, more philosophically, to have no ego, to think as a pack or herd? We’re only guessing, of course, but this empathy leads to other questions. What might other creatures think, or feel, going through our mills? What special pains? Or, on the other hand, what special pleasures are theirs alone? Surely trying to think about the answers expands us; not only our hearts, but our own world, our own seats of sensation. More importantly, beyond what it does for us, it may expand our sense of the preciousness of these creatures’ own modes and laws of existence.
This is all part of the exhilaration and pity of Dog Boy, although Hornung holds back from fully entering the heads of her canine characters, filtering the story instead through the point of view of Romochka as he strives to be a dog. But perhaps the most astonishing feat of inter-species imagination in our literature is Les Murray’s The Cows on Killing Day (1990). ‘All me are standing on feed,’ it begins … ‘All me have just been milked.’ The ‘me’ is an old cow, who watches the ‘heifer human’ and ‘oldest bull human’ dole out the ‘cud’ from their tractor: ‘big rolls of tight dry feed’. But the ‘me’ is also at the same time her herd, a kind of herd mind.
While the herd feed (‘Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed’), the old cow –the ‘one me’– is kept back in the yard. The bull human approaches with his ‘stick’. It cracks and makes the cow’s feet go out from under her. She shivers, and falls down and; ‘with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear,’ she dies. But the whole herd of which she is a part, that other ‘me’ – ‘All me come running,’ as she lies there, to share the outrage:
… A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree is with the human. It works in the neck of me and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me
make the Roar …
In Us and Them, Anna Krien suggests we’re treating animals more than ever as things. Maybe that’s why they’re appearing so often in our writing; and why their presence feels so freshly urgent in these books. Maybe it’s possible that we’ll even see a new type of social novel emerge in which animal lives, though other, are culturally, physically, even philosophically, intertwined with our own?
Wittgenstein wrote: ‘If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.’ Yet it seems to me, at my most hopeful, that to try to imagine what it might say is the most human thing we can do.
Delia Falconer is a Sydney-based novelist, essayist and writer of short stories.
Her first novel, The Service of Clouds (Picador, 1997), set in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, was nominated for major Australian literary prizes, including the Miles Franklin. It was published in the US by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and in Germany by S Fischer Verlag.
Her second novel, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Picador, 2005) was published in the US by Soft Skull Press and Counterpoint. It was nominated for major awards including the Commonwealth Prize and Spur Awards (US). Her essays and stories have been widely anthologised in publications, including Best Australian Essays and Best Australian Stories.
Her latest work is Sydney (New South, 2011), a cultural history and personal reflection on her home town. It won the 2011 NIB CAL/Waverley Prize, and was shortlisted for, among others, the Prime Minister’s and National Biography Awards.
Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy
Reviewed in the Guardian
Sophie Cunningham talks to Eva Hornung about Dog Boy for Meanjin.
Listen to Eva Hornung talk to Ramona Koval about Dog Boy for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.
Charlotte Wood’s Animal People
Review by Angela Meyer in the Sydney Morning Herald
Interview with Charlotte Wood for Readings.
Deborah Robertson’s Sweet Old World
Peter Pierce reviews Sweet Old World for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Deborah Robertson talks to Sian Prior about Sweet Old World for Readings.
J.M. Coetzee and animals
James Wood reviews Elizabeth Costello in London Review of Books.
The Boston Globe on J.M. Coetzee’s literature of animal rights.
Anna Krien’s Us and Them
Charlotte Wood reviews Us and Them for the Australian.
Anna Krien talks about her Quarterly Essay, Us and Them, for Slow TV.
Listen to Anna Krien talk to Richard Fidler about Us and Them for ABC radio.
Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog
Robert Dessaix interviews Michelle de Kretser about The Lost Dog for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.
James Ley reviews The Lost Dog for the Age.
Ursula Le Guin reviews The Lost Dog for the Guardian.