May 2014

Arts & Letters

Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘Only the Animals’

By Richard King
Penguin; $29.99

The title of Ceridwen Dovey’s second book comes from a quote by Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” Sax is an author and academic with a particular interest in anthrozoology, which is the study of the relationship between humans and animals throughout history and across cultures. Only the Animals takes up that task but gives it a poetic twist. The result is a strange and beautiful work that turns Sax’s rather sphinx-like aphorism into something like the Great Sphinx itself: a literary equivalent of that hybrid with squashed human features and chunky paws.

The book comprises ten stories, all of which feature an animal that meets its death as a result of human conflict. Thus we are given, among others, a camel killed in colonial Australia, a cat killed on the Western Front and a blue mussel killed in the conflagration of Pearl Harbor. The stories are narrated in the first person (or first camel, first cat, first mussel, etc.), and come down to us, so to speak, posthumously: it is the souls of the animals that disclose themselves. Each story is self-contained, but each is far richer – in terms of emotional and philosophical resonance – for its proximity to the others. To put it another way: Only the Animals is a perfectly integrated work of art brilliantly disguised as a collection of short stories.

These stories are not fables; their protagonists are not allegorical figures and no plonking morals lie in wait for the reader. It is, above all, the relationship between people and animals that interests Dovey, and though many of her protagonists are ill used by humans, the sense that the benefits of animal–human interaction may be mutual comes through loud and clear. (Red Peter, a chimpanzee, to his handler: “You made me a better human, and I would like to think – dare I say it? – that I made you a better ape.”) Nor are Dovey’s animals purely anthropomorphic projections; each expresses itself in human language but is granted its creatural autonomy.

Each of the stories in Only the Animals pays tribute to an author (or authors) who happened to write about animals themselves. The camel is accompanying Henry Lawson, the cat belongs to Colette, the mussel’s story is told in the style of Jack Kerouac, and the chimpanzee is lifted from Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report to an Academy’.

Perhaps the best tribute I can pay to Dovey is to say that her name looks perfectly at home next to those of her influences.

Richard King

Richard King is a freelance writer based in Fremantle. He is the author of On Offence. His website is The Bloody Crossroads

May 2014

From the front page

Image of Clive Palmer

Clive Palmer afloat

Do we have to take this man seriously?

Image of Valeria Luiselli

Missing witnesses: Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Lost Children Archive’

The Mexican ‘documentary fiction’ writer delivers a polyphonic road trip

Image of the Lower Darling near Wilcannia

New developments in watergate scandal

The EAA deal is not the only buyback that warrants scrutiny

Image of Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison

The vision thing

So far, the federal election campaign of 2019 is a surprise return to the politics of yesteryear


In This Issue

Detail from St George and the Dragon (circa 1435), Rogier van der Weyden

Knights and the old republic

Tony Abbott's aggressive monarchism

Time and transition in Sophie Hyde’s ‘52 Tuesdays’

A new Australian film poses intriguing questions

Who is the ordinary reasonable person?

The trouble with repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

The return of the Tichborne Claimant

A recent play resurrects a 150-year-old case of imposture


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Valeria Luiselli

Missing witnesses: Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Lost Children Archive’

The Mexican ‘documentary fiction’ writer delivers a polyphonic road trip

Image of David Malouf

David Malouf’s new worlds

Consciousness is at the heart of the celebrated author’s body of work

Image of Solange

A black woman in space: Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’

Songs distilled from the quiet expanses of high art and black culture

Haruki to Highsmith: Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Burning’

Mr Ripley echoes through a masterful tale of class tensions in Seoul


More in Noted

Image of ‘Islands’ by Peggy Frew

‘Islands’ by Peggy Frew

The bestselling author delivers a nuanced examination of family tragedy

‘Who Killed My Father’ by Édouard Louis (trans. Lorin Stein)

Political rage fuels the French author’s account of a fraught father–son relationship

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide

Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection


Read on

Image of Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison

The vision thing

So far, the federal election campaign of 2019 is a surprise return to the politics of yesteryear

Image of Dame Edna Everage

Much ado about Barry

On Humphries’s brand of confronting comedy and the renaming of the Barry Award

Image from ‘Eat the Problem’

Can ‘Eat the Problem’ solve the problem?

Mona’s new project explores our fraught ethics of consumption

Image from ‘Janet Laurence: After Nature’

‘Janet Laurence: After Nature’ at the MCA

This survey offers a root and branch study of the natural world’s fragility


×
×