By Ceridwen DoveyFiction Penguin
Only the Animals
Only the Animals is a remarkable literary achievement by one of Australia’s brightest young writers – and it’s earned high praise from leading lights like J.M. Coetzee, Anna Funder and Michelle De Kretser.
This inventive themed short-story collection explores what it is to be human through the perspective of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century. In a trench on the Western Front, a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany a dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. And a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US army writes a letter to Sylvia Plath.
Only the Animals was sparked by the true story of a parrot so traumatised by seeing the second tower fall in New York on September 11 that it self-mutilated – which morphed into the first story written, about a parrot that plucks out all its feathers after an Israeli bombing in Beirut.
Dovey found this more moving than all the stories she’d heard about humans, and wondered at the power of animals to evoke a sense of empathy and authentic feeling that goes beyond the obligation human stories evoke.
The result is a playful, moving, enigmatic and somehow viscerally true collection of stories that succeeds in reflecting human nature back to us, and draws deeply on literary history, which is woven into the fabric of these astonishing tales.
Dovey’s languid and assured prose carries the reader into the original, ambitious territory of a collection of ten short stories featuring first-person narration with a difference - tales told in the voices of animals who have met their deaths as a result of human conflict. Each story references an author and pays testament to a relationship, whether real or stylistic ( a chimpanzee narrator is based on the animal in Kafka’s short story ‘A Report to an Academy’, for example, a cat on the Western Front belonged to Colette, a mussel tells its story in the style of Jack Kerouac) and it is a tribute to Dovey’s skill that such a strange, unlikely premise is realised so brilliantly into an ingenious, thought-provoking whole.
It is long after midnight and still the tomcat has not returned to his parapet above the trench adjacent to mine. I have been waiting for him, primed by the soldiers’ talk of his legendary night-hunting skills out in no man’s land and the way he fearlessly cleans himself while exposed in the sun on the parapet, even in the heaviest bombardments. The soldiers welcomed me when I arrived but seemed a little disappointed that I wasn’t also a tom – they like to bet on anything and everything, these boys, and I think they would have liked a wager on who would win the scrap of the tomcats.
What they don’t know is that I’ve always felt I was meant to be a tom and not a she-cat. Colette understands this, my beloved Colette who inadvertently left me behind here at the front after a brave secret visit to her new husband, the awful Henri, who was made sergeant at the outbreak of war and fully believes he deserves the title. She didn’t know that I’d stowed away in her vehicle in Paris, overcoming my detestation of blur and movement. But while I was outside the car, distracted by a blackbird, she was discovered and sent back to Paris, before I’d been able to surprise her with the warmth of my body at her shins. Now I’m trapped here until she realises what has happened – she will, I’m sure of it, with her cat-like instincts – and returns to collect me.
I’ve kept a low profile, and done my surveillance work discreetly. The officers’ quarters, far from the fire trenches, appealed due to their trimmings and comforts, but I know the sergeant has always been jealous of Colette’s love for me, and would be delighted to see me harmed. Alone with him one evening in their apartment in Paris, I sensed his malevolence so strongly that my usually dry paws became wet with sweat, and I disappeared the way only a cat can and did not re-emerge from my hiding place until she was home. I moved away from the base reserve camp, past the support line, and arrived at this mud-churned front, though I would dearly have loved to stay close to the pigeon loft to catch one of those earnest little birds ferrying messages in aluminium capsules attached to their legs. Can it be true they are motivated to fly the distances they do for the meagre promise of being reunited with their mate on the other side of the partition on their return? They look delicious to me even when they come back ragged and bloody, almost torn apart by German bullets or German hawks, about to drop dead from fatigue. I enjoyed the jokes their human handlers told too. A male pigeon falls in love with a female pigeon and sets up a rendezvous at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He arrives on time. Two hours later, when he is about to give up and leave, she arrives and says casually, ‘So sorry I’m late. It’s such a lovely day, I thought I’d walk.’
The fire trench is not my ideal environment, but at least I know the sergeant will rarely set foot here, and the young men who fill these trenches are so miserably bothered by rats which have developed a taste for human flesh that they are glad to claim me as their own trench cat to rival the tomcat next door. It shocked Colette to see what has become of this swathe of the countryside. So many times I have accompanied her on visits to her mother in the small village in Burgundy where she grew up in pastoral paradise. She can summon vignettes of a way of life that most Parisians have long lost: resting her feet on a metal foot warmer filled with embers in a cold schoolroom; feasting on sloes from the hedges and on haws; the chestnut skins she’d throw in the fire, to her mother’s chagrin, for they’d later spoil the ash lye spread over the bucking cloth on the laundry tub, and stain the linen. Autumn was always her favourite season, and it became mine too once I had seen Burgundy. It was just as she’d promised: the last peaches, the triangular beechnuts, and the red leaves of the cherry trees quivering in the November dawn.
But this late autumn at the front is unlike any I have witnessed. Without the changing palette of the trees to signal the shift towards winter (the leaves have been exploded off), and the songbirds mostly gone quiet, it becomes difficult to know where I am, in what season, in which century. Between my trench and the foremost trenches of the Germans, there is no living thing except rats anymore. Instead there is an ocean of mud, liquid enough that when the wind blows it forms ripples on the surface of the largest shell craters; pools deep enough to drown a man. Paris and its millennial amusements must have been a mirage, for how could that have led to this?
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist