Ceridwen Dovey - Wonderfully weird and profoundly witty, Australian writer Dovey recounts a history of 20th-century human catastrophe in 10 short stories, each told by an animal who was there
Ceridwen Dovey, Only the Animals, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Perhaps only the animals can tell us what it is to be human
The souls of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century and connected to both famous and little-known writers in surprising ways tell their astonishing stories of life and death. 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. During the Siege of Sarajevo, a starving bear tells a fairy tale. And a dolphin sent to Iraq by the U.S. Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath.
Exquisitely written, playful, and poignant, Ceridwen Dovey's Only the Animals is a remarkable literary achievement by one of our brightest young writers. An animal's-eye-view of humans at our brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best, it asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals but for other people, and to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.
Wonderfully weird and profoundly witty, Australian writer Dovey recounts a history of 20th-century human catastrophe in 10 short stories, each told by an animal who was there.
In “Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat, and I,” a house cat—inadvertently separated from her beloved bohemian owner—prowls the trenches of the western front, giving comfort to the soldiers and recounting adventures from better days. “Hundstage,” one of the eerier tales in the bunch, follows Himmler’s dog, exiled in the Polish forest. In war-ravaged Mozambique, twin elephants come of age listening to tales of their ancestors. Not every story is so grim, however, and while all of them are dark, some are tragically hilarious, brilliant in their absurdity. In one, a Kerouac-ian mussel seeks adventure and meaning on the hull of a ship. In another, a Russian tortoise escapes from its hermit owner, is adopted by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, becomes the pet of Virginia Woolf in London (in a section called “A Terrarium of One’s Own”), and ultimately returns to the motherland, where she's launched into orbit as part of the Soviet Space Program. A military dolphin, sent by the U.S. Navy to fight enemy divers in Iraq, writes posthumous letters to Sylvia Plath. In the hands of another writer, this would all be hopelessly twee. The inner monologues of animals, all of them doomed by human tragedy, is high-risk terrain: too earnest and it’s sentimental, too moralistic and it’s preachy, too clownish and it’s a cartoon. But Dovey’s stories, at once charming and haunting, are something else altogether. “Absorbing” is not quite the right word for them—their poetic oddness keeps them at arm’s length—but they are intoxicating nonetheless.
As unsettling as they are beautiful, these quietly wise stories wedge themselves into your mind—and stay there. - Kirkus Reviews
Ceridwen Dovey's novel Only the Animals doesn’t behave like a novel. It slips between categories: from a collection of short stories, towards a collection of essays, and back to the novel. It both defies and celebrates the possibilities of the form – in the tradition of JM Coetzee. It is an ambitious book with a fable-like surface, and a whole churning world beneath. Following on from her first novel Blood Kin (2007), Only the Animals confirms Dovey’s talent.
Only the Animals is a story told by the souls of ten dead animals. Each animal is caught up in a human conflict over the last century. They tell the stories of their deaths. A mussel speaks of its death in the Pearl Harbour bombings, an elephant from the 1987 Mozambique civil war, a bear of its death during the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict of 1992. Not only is each story told during a different conflict, and by a different animal, each story pays homage to a writer.
The mussel’s journey to Pearl Harbour is a hilarious reinterpretation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The naval dolphin caught up in the Iraq conflict writes a letter to Sylvia Plath. We meet Tolstoy’s turtle. For the careful reader, and Only the Animals does ask for a careful reading, there is joy in recognizing the homages to past writers – who themselves wrote imaginatively about animals. The prose takes on the tone, lexicon, and in some cases quotes directly from these writers’ texts. The referential nature of the prose could become tiresome in less talented hands, but Dovey is beholden to story first. The dolphin speaking of Ted Hughes says, "there is something he does with language that makes my brain tingle," and indeed, we feel that tingle here in Only the Animals.
The tale of the twin elephants in Mozambique, in the Soul of Elephant chapter, is heartbreaking and riveting. The ending is a punch to the guts, in the way that good endings should be. It’s painfully beautiful. The setting of a country in the depths of a civil war – with a populace dying of starvation – is wonderfully rendered.
Each chapter requires an adjustment to vast changes in place, time and the differing consciousness of the animals. There is some awkwardness in the exchange between creatures. The placing of words into the animals’ mouths at first feels forced, but as the book progresses, it teaches how it should be read. The animal’s consciousnesses begin to feel natural, less forced into shape. It’s no page-turner (though in an abstract sense it is a whodunnit); instead the stories layer upon one another and solidify like sedimentary rock. That the prose still sparkles, and that the stories pull at the heart, despite the somewhat awkward, weighty premise, is a remarkable achievement.
A witch character, in the Soul of Bear chapter, says to the bear, who has been left caged in the zoo, only surviving starvation through the kindness of soldiers who risked their lives to feed him: “Do you know why humans use animals as metaphors, why you are the original metaphor? … in moments of excess feeling, we can use you to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable.” In the self-referential tone that defines the book, this is what Dovey attempts. Dovey voices the uncomfortable, she speaks the unspeakable, through the shifting mouthpiece of these animals.
A turtle digs a circular hole in the mud. It is digging its own trench. A trench that is really a metaphor for war. Each moment in Only the Animals gives many readings. The book serves as an imagined history of humans' relationship with animals. Dovey quotes Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot: “It’s called being a citizen, not just of the world, but of all time, it’s what Flaubert described as being ‘brother in God to everything that lives, from the giraffe and the crocodile to man.’ It’s called being a writer.” - Romy Ash
Ceridwen Dovey studied social anthropology at Harvard before writing her debut novel, the celebrated “Blood Kin” (2007). She continued her studies at New York University afterward, and has now brought an anthropologist’s eye to her second book, the story collection “Only the Animals.” Her subject is not human societies, however, but the relationship between humans and other species. And why not? As J.M. Coetzee says in one of Dovey’s epigraphs, “Each creature is key to all other creatures.”
As humans find their destinies connected with the rest of the natural world, and their degradation of that world undeniable, artists will no doubt explore this fraught relationship further. We exalt and exploit animals daily, but do not know what they feel or think; we are beholden to the human lens. So when we turn animals into fictional characters, how might we avoid condescending to them? How to honor, for example, the complexity and otherworldliness of bird song or elephant thought?
Dovey takes the enormous risk of anthropomorphism, offering 10 stories filtered through the souls of animals linked somehow to writers or adventurers. Given that the reader encounters empathetic cats, homesick camels and dolphins rereading Ted Hughes, we must grant Dovey artistic license to take us into the land of fables and fantasy — and this trust is warranted.
These stories are strange and richly imagined, well researched and at times haunting and atmospheric. The first, “The Bones,” is narrated by the soul of a camel that died in 1892 in Australia, and begins with a goanna “moving through the dry leaves, making them scrape against one another like cartilage.” A motley expedition crew guards a mysterious sack of “yellow bones” and sits fireside, speaking of gold mines and mothers who read Dickens. Elsewhere, Plautus, a tortoise belonging to an “ornamental hermit,” endears himself to Tolstoy’s daughter, and then Virginia Woolf.
Dovey is a skilled prose stylist, rendering a dying hound who imagines himself the legendary wolf Fenris, whose “chain was made of elements so elusive they could scarcely be said to exist: the roots of mountains, the breath of fish, the sound of a cat’s footsteps.” Any hint of earnestness is balanced by surprising and savage imagery, like the thought of a goanna eating human eyes, or an extensive collection of elephant fetuses. The voices of these animals, wrenched into human speech and thought, are weakest when they explicate human characters or cultural observations.
“Only the Animals” highlights the arbitrary valuations of life on earth. Animals serve as beasts of burden, military resources, companions, experiments or characters in their own right. But in every story, the weight of human action, hunger and power manifests as real and lurking danger: a parrot being abandoned at a pet store, a highly trained chimpanzee who has fallen out of favor, cats in World War I-era trenches, a military dolphin released into a conflict zone. An elder elephant, telling stories to the young, notes that a zoo is a “very dangerous place for an animal in wartime. . . . It was not the poor who ate the zoo animals in Paris.”
The conflicts in these stories, regardless of setting or fabulist magic, coalesce into the larger narrative that is always unfolding on earth: the fight for existence, life beginning and inevitably ending. In that way, the stories are tragic but knowing. The wronged do not howl at their executioners as much as hold their actions in the light, and accept their place in history.
In the end, the book succeeds not because it endows any animal with an authentic voice but because it provides a window onto the human animal’s struggle to balance entitlement and obligation. Dovey’s vivid tales show us that the same species that would slaughter a herd of elephants would also risk sniper fire to feed bears in the Sarajevo Zoo or remain behind with a pack of military mules entangled in barbed wire, only to perish alongside them.
This collection unflinchingly illuminates human nature, and makes clear that the rest of the natural world can only bear witness. “Ignore the animals,” a drunken drifter proclaims in the first story. “They’re our only and most loyal spectators.” - Megan Mayhew Bergman
It is a lovely irony that even a cursory glance at the history of literature illuminates how profoundly seductive, even essential, animality has been in this attempt to clarify the human condition. From Aesop’s menagerie of moralized critters to Thomas Mann’s enchanting Bashan, from the Bible’s slithering Satan to Kafka’s paranoiac burrower, animism has so permeated the literary imagination as to lose something of its original strangeness. We cast our voices and troubles onto frogs and fish and ferrets without a second thought. We picture them in complicated, unraveling relationships; they are harried by work and fate and mortality. They become us so easily as to be somewhat unnerving—yet they remain forever apart, something once removed. And therein, perhaps, we may locate the timeless narrative utility of the animal: possessed of a vitality pleasingly reminiscent of our own yet sufficiently alien to save us from something like self-incrimination. These delightful, frightening, ambiguous creatures become ideal role players for the grand, if dangerous, literary experiment of self-discovery: morally malleable stand-ins from whom we might derive, at a safe distance, instruction, wisdom, laughter, and loathing.
At first glance, Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals seems to slide easily into this literary tradition of creaturely appropriation. Her debut, the well-received Blood Kin, made use of three narrators—a chef, a barber, and an artist—to tell the story of a coup in which an aging autocrat is overthrown. That none of the major characters possessed a proper name leant the work the gravity of a parable, an allegorical agency that served to enrich Dovey’s exploration of power’s capacity to corrupt. This sophomore effort, a collection of ten tales told by the souls of dead animals, finds Dovey again writing in a semi-fabulist mode, though her thematic concerns—nothing less than what it means to be human—have expanded considerably. Each of the animals, having been caught up in a historical human conflict, tells the story of its own death. These vignettes are by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, and Dovey’s exceptional pacing ensures her readers remain engaged and enchanted throughout. No Disneyfied cautionary tales, however, are to be found herein. Dovey eschews sentimentality and easy moralizing, lending a sophistication to the proceedings that feels like a respect for the strangeness, and the ultimate unknowability, of wild consciousness. The eponymous animals are neither naïvely comic, nor possessed of the icy perfection and opacity of mythic beasts; rather, in their psychological richness and complexity of emotion they remind us nothing so much as ourselves—only sharper, wiser, somehow more than human. This is not to say that Dovey doesn’t find fertile territory within the abstraction of animality; indeed, she creates, and makes wonderful use of, an emotional distance through which human pain is refracted and made new. But there is never any bowing or scraping, no easy laughs or vulgar caricatures. Dovey’s artistry ensures that every revelation feels utterly earned.
That artistry is perhaps best displayed within Animal’s ingenious narrative scaffolding, which reads as both a love letter to classic literature and a bold reimagining of familiar formal elements. In a series of remarkable structural gambits, Dovey proves she is both a deeply engaged reader as well as something of a literary chameleon, as many chapters recall—and reinvigorate—the great works of the past. Take, for instance, the story of Sel the mussel, in which a mollusk chases “the gorgeous chance to be tested” across the karmic wastes of the ocean—“an invisible circuit of madman energy”—in prose that perfectly mimics the transcendental homelessness of Kerouac at his most ecstatic. Or the chapter on Prague’s Red Peter, a sophisticated chimpanzee who has learned to speak and dress immaculately by way of a scientifically indoctrinated high culture; Kafka himself appears as a character, an intensity lurking at the story’s edges, and both his “A Report to an Academy” and “A Hunger Artist” are referenced deftly throughout: “Hem yourself in again,” Red Peter advises his chimpanzee paramour-in-training, “deny yourself whatever you desire, until the pleasure comes from the denial itself, not the consummation of desire.” These intertextual allusions create a fecund, multilayered storytelling in which meaning reverberates and echoes across not only the sequential stories, but also the rich legacy of modernist literature itself.
The animals themselves prove uniquely qualified—and only too happy—to philosophize on humanity and animality alike in perceptive and elegantly aphoristic asides. Plautus, a tortoise owned by, among others, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell, eventually joins the fledgling Soviet space program and realizes, as he goes willingly into a hopeless round-the-moon mission:
I’d spent my life in the company of writers who’d found their way to a perfect solitude: a hermit, a suicide, a vagabond, a lone avant-gardee; writers who had recognized in me a matching contradictory desire never to be let go of, always to be let alone. After the first blast of creation, we were all left homeless, every creature on earth.
Elsewhere, a militarized dolphin dictates a posthumous letter to her literary idol, Sylvia Plath. She is exasperated by Ted Hughes’s Jungian obsession with locating the primal animal within the human. “It was all a license to behave badly,” she declares, building toward a stinging indictment of masculinity:
. . . human women need no reminder that they’re animals. So why do your men keep shouting from the rooftops as if they’ve discovered how to transform base metals into gold? Imagine a male dolphin who has to keep having epiphanies to remember he’s an animal! But we’re special, your men declare, we’re a special-case animal, and part of what makes us special is that we ask the very question, Am I human or animal?
In a prefatory remark before the story of a fairy-telling bear in war-torn Serbia, Dovey quotes Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” This, I think, is what undergirds Dovey’s collection: a portraiture of otherness through which we refract and see ourselves. That these portraits are composed by way of a kind of negative space—that which we can’t easily see, the back of the soul—is as much a testament to Dovey’s emotional acumen as it is her generous narrative gifts. She effortlessly marshals a range of comic tonal registers, from low bawdiness—“It doesn’t matter if a woman’s cracked, they say, s’long as the crack is in the right place,” says the drifter-poet Henry Lawson— to mordant wit, and though she is often laugh-out-loud funny, Dovey never makes her jokes at the expense of the beasts’ animality; rather, we are offered to share the laughter of peers: “Go forth, fish and fuck yourselves stupid, and you can thank me afterwards. We’re animals, after all!” says the dolphin, skewering the posturing of the poet-as-shaman. In frequently striking moments of insight, she proves just as capable a psychologist as she is a humorist: “A wise friend once told me that kindness, like cruelty, can be an expression of domination,” a ghost-pig tells an exiled dog. It is difficult to remain unmoved by the consistent grace and generosity of this wisdom. Dovey’s rich and wide ranging prose, from the painfully specific (“marriage would force her to metamorphose so that she was half-duck, half-otter, always partly a stranger to herself”) to the poetically universal (“It seems to be the curse of all earth’s creatures, that we cannot help but spread ourselves around, always making a mess, carrying life with us, leaving it behind”) suggests something of the cosmic beauty and fullness of the zodiac emblazoned across each chapter’s beginning.
One of the book’s two epigraphs comes from J.M. Coetzee (a fitting choice given his essayistic and species-leaping novella The Lives of Animals):
Each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself, says he, is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation.
Dovey’s animals, each just such “a vessel of revelation,” both bridge and extend the rich tradition of animalistic literature, indeed marking it indelibly with stories that continue to reverberate long after the final tale (an abandoned parrot in bombed-out Lebanon) concludes. The plight of the animal can perhaps best be contextualized as an ambiguity within the lives of humans: Family or food? Partner or resource? Friend or nuisance? “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals?” asks the Plath-loving dolphin. “And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?” The lasting nobility of Dovey’s exquisitely drawn creatures is that they lead us toward an empathy in which animals—the wild, the domestic, and the human alike—are renewed and ennobled. “Ignore the animals,” counsels one of the humans, and the stark contrast of his crudity sticks in our craw. “They’re our only and most loyal spectators.” Dovey’s luminous collection advises just the opposite: that a special kind of attention be paid to these enigmatic lives, these dream-haunters, these creatures drawn in the stars. We have, she seems to say, so very much to learn. - Dustin Illingworth
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’. - Delia Falconer
The novelist-critic John Berger opened his 1980 book “About Looking’’ with a simple question: “Why look at animals?’’ Berger argued that what we see when we look at animals — ourselves or the other, “messengers and promises” from other realms, or simply “meat [and] leather” — reveals a great deal about our culture and our humanity.
In “Only the Animals,’’ Ceridwen Dovey asks a slightly different question: Why write about, or even as, animals? From Kafka to Woolf to Coetzee, writers have tried to jump the species gap, imagining what it would be like to inhabit animal consciousness. Why is this the case? Why is the most human of activities (writing) so frequently concerned with seeing the world from a nonhuman perspective?
Though Dovey was trained as a social anthropologist at Harvard, the South African-born resident of Australia is a novelist, and her exploration of these questions takes fictional form. “Only the Animals’’ is a collection of 10 stories, each narrated by the soul of an animal that has died, directly or indirectly, because of human conflict.This sounds like a gimmicky premise: Now I’ll give you a dog dying in the Polish woods during World War II! Now I’ll make you weep over an elephant shot during Mozambique’s civil war! But the book doesn’t come across as contrived, in part because Dovey’s prose is so sharp and unsentimental, in part because she is able to use the same premise to such different effects.
Many stories are sad (the dog, the elephant) but many are also funny — the story of Colette’s nonbinary cat, for instance, who “always felt I was meant to be a tom and not a she-cat.” The collection raises serious philosophical questions, but it also exhibits, in every story, Dovey’s delight in meeting the imaginative challenge she has set herself.
The stories move from the Australian outback in 1892 to a bombed-out Lebanon in 2006, and the collection shifts styles as regularly as it does settings. In the book’s most humorous story, we meet a peripatetic mussel who speaks in the relentlessly ecstatic patois of the Beats: “Right then I wanted to be inside his mind, it was that kind of hunger, something I’d never felt for a girl because a girl’s mind had never grabbed me like that. I wanted to devour his thoughts.” After many hullside bull sessions, the mussel dies at Pearl Harbor.
In another story, the soul of a US Navy-trained dolphin writes a letter to Sylvia Plath: “I have the US Navy to thank for training me to do the deed, then deal with the deed, though it’s in failing to deal that I died. Word games as primers, Ms. Plath, you’d appreciate that.” (The Nabokovian wit displayed by the dolphin is typical of the collection’s other narrators, who are well read by the standard of any species.)
Why write about animals? Dovey offers several answers. The Plath-loving dolphin claims that Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, wrote his animal poems because “he wanted to justify the animal in the human.” We’re all animals, Hughes suggests, so we must be forgiven when we indulge our primal appetites. We might call this the Exculpatory Explanation.
In another story, a Forrest Gump-like tortoise — through his long life, he has been the pet of Tolstoy, Orwell, and Woolf — tells us that Virginia Woolf, who herself wrote a book from the perspective of a cocker spaniel, believed that great writers “could at one stage find no way to say what they wanted to say except by making [an] animal speak for them.” We might call this the Ineffable Explanation.
At another point, Dovey quotes from the scholar Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals know.” Put another way, we write about animals in order to better understand humans. We might call this the Anthropological Explanation.
Our relationships with animals are various — we love them and kill them, care for them and eat them — and so it makes sense that our reasons for writing about animals would be various.
“Only the Animals’’ doesn’t simplify or sentimentalize, but it does suggest that there is something irreducibly powerful about our imaginative bonds with animals. As long as there are humans, there will be animals, and as long as there are animals, we will think and write and dream about them. - Anthony Domestico
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. -
Two stories into Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, my heart began to sink. I thought that this collection of 10 thematically linked stories, told mainly by the souls of animals killed in human conflict who had close contact with or were inspired by a major writer, could hardly be more ungainly. I saw it as a kind of Watership Down meets The Lovely Bones, with literary cameos to satisfy the smug.
The first two souls, a camel and a cat, were anthropomorphised beyond incredulity. The first famous writers, Henry Lawson and Colette, were devices to lecture and opine. Dovey was expecting us to believe dialogue weighed down with exposition and to sympathise with the death of a cat in the trenches of World War I while thousands of young soldiers were dying around it.
I thought I would regretfully be writing a negative review of a young Australian writer, published by a major imprint.
By the third story, the glorious “Red Peter’s Little Lady”, however, I realised I’d read the first two stories wrongly and needed to start again from the beginning. I’d entirely misjudged Dovey’s intent. She wasn’t expecting us to believe anything. Writer 1, reviewer 0.
The problem was this: I was mired in Australian fiction of the type that Patrick White called “the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism” and I was unprepared for the anarchic brilliance of this wonderful book. Yes, the protagonists are dead animals. Dovey persuades us of her characters as she teeters on the edge of sentimentality, but in the next breath she dances back and Only the Animals becomes a kind of conversation that anticipates the reader’s – at least, this reader’s – response and parries it.
The difficulties that troubled me in the first two stories (anthropomorphism, our alternating empathy and callousness towards animals, the role of writers and literature in giving voices to animals, the writerly manipulation of readers’ empathy, among others) are exactly what she examines. And it is an examination: there is palpable restraint on the page and Dovey draws no conclusions. Only the Animals is a glorious imaginative leap, not into the minds of animals, but into our own.
The idea that fiction can be both playful and intelligent should not be so surprising. Dovey’s animals read and write and think and sometimes pity us. They are more human (and more humane) than we are. Some of the stories are sorrowful: “I, the Elephant, Wrote This”, where a loving family of elephants believe their souls will join the stars after they are killed by villagers, is deeply moving and left me gasping. “Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me”, where Myti the mussel experiences a Kerouac-inspired counterculture adventure, is almost jolly.
The most successful of the collection (by a nose) is “Plautus: a Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space”, where the eponymous tortoise is owned by Tolstoy’s “ornamental hermit” and passes through the hands of Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and Tom Stoppard, before inveigling herself in the Russian space program and circling the moon. It’s layered and astonishing and far and away the best thing I’ve read this year. Dovey has a particular talent for mixing exuberance and melancholy in the one story without tonal jerks or jars, and this story sparkles on the page.
I laughed out loud when Plautus interviews a returned cosmonaut dog, Ugolyok, who describes the stresses of being cooped up in a small capsule for 330 earth orbits with another dog. “If Veterok touched my toy ball,” Ugolyok says, “I just couldn’t stand it, it became a really big deal.”
By the final line, I was stilled by the thought of Plautus after takeoff in his “cold little cabin, for all those solitary hours flying across the night ocean”. It’s beautiful writing, but besides that, it’s enthralling. Most writers don’t generate this much genuine emotion over the course of an entire career.
There are stories about dogs loyal to the point of delusion and dolphins misled by devious humans, a parrot (named Barnes, after Julian) living and dying in Beirut during Israeli air strikes, and an almost-human chimpanzee in love with his trainer’s wife. (The chimp writes plaintively that she “made me a better human, and I ... made you a better ape”.) There are stories within stories and literary allusions underneath direct quotes from the likes of Plath, D.H. Lawrence and Douglas Adams. It’s clever work, but it’s never tricky for the sake of it. This kind of writing is the fictional equivalent of walking a high wire without a net.
Commenting on the individual stories, though, is missing the point. As a collection, Only the Animals works as a journey into empathy that, for all its ideas, never neglects the basics of fiction: showing readers in beautiful words compelling characters who do fascinating things.
Writers who state their intentions baldly can be arming critics with a stick. Plautus the tortoise, who lives with Woolf while she is writing Flush: A Biography, her imagined life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, is quite the literary critic. She doesn’t approve of Woolf’s prose “when the tone veered toward the ironic, tongue-in-cheek style that humans seem to adopt automatically when writing from the perspective of an animal”. Indeed. Plautus considers Flush to be “a cheeky book, certainly, provocative even ... but that didn’t mean it couldn’t also be moving”.
This might have been Dovey’s manifesto. To get away with that kind of self-referential nudging, the work has to be very good and the writer, very brave. Only the Animals makes much contemporary fiction seem stodgy and grey, and Dovey has put everything on the line here. It’s a remarkable achievement. - www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2014/04/30/only-the-animals/1398434400
The animals who narrate the stories in Ceridwen Dovey’s collection have each been killed during a human conflict of the past century: Himmler’s dog is abandoned in the woods; a bear starves to death during the siege of Sarajevo. Each animal pays homage to an author known for writing about animals themselves: a dolphin trained for military operations writes a letter to Sylvia Plath; a camel accompanies Henry Lawson on a journey across drought-ravaged Australia. And while this intricate set-up could easily come across as awkward, or overly complicated, Dovey hits exactly the right note with her creations. Each animal is a joy to encounter.
These storytellers are smart and thoughtful, self-aware in a playful, endearing way. Even as Dovey appropriates human ideas of animals, she also subverts and challenges these same ideas, revealing much about our relationship with the animals and ourselves. In the dolphin’s letter to Sylvia Plath, she muses on the absurdity of that very human, usually male, question (the question of gender roles is a recurrent theme here, handled in a way best described as utterly delightful): am I human or animal? There’s plenty of humour in these stories, not laugh-out-loud but off-kilter, self-referential and fun in a smart, nerdy way: ‘Imagine a dolphin who has to keep having epiphanies to remember he’s an animal! The female dolphin would stay so far away from him he’d never get a chance to have little what the?! I’m an animal?! offspring.’ In one of my favourite stories, a group of mussels in the midst of an existential crisis, à la Jack Kerouac, hitchhike on battleships across oceans. Underpinning this sly wit is a surprising emotional depth and many of these stories caught me off-guard in their concluding paragraphs – in finishing some, I was so startlingly moved it was as if I had been winded.
With sass and verve, Dovey indulges a fantasy I know I frequently subscribe to – that animals think as much about us as we do about them. This is fiction at its very imaginative best. - Bronte Coates
With sass and verve, Dovey indulges a fantasy I know I frequently subscribe to – that animals think as much about us as we do about them. This is fiction at its very imaginative best. - Bronte Coates
Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey ’03, is a beautifully wrought, disconcerting collection of stories told by the souls of dead animals. A cat is picked off by a sniper on the Western Front; a blue mussel drowns in Pearl Harbor; a courageous tortoise is launched into Soviet-era space; and a self-mutilating parrot is abandoned in Beirut amid the 2006 Israeli air strikes. Yet Dovey lightens and layers these tales with humor, imagination, and an ingenious literary construct. Most of the animals are connected to writers—Colette, Jack Kerouac, and Gustave Flaubert, among others—who have featured animals in their own fiction, and can emulate their literary voices. (The Kerouacian mussel saying good-bye to a friend: “We didn’t understand but we let him go, hurting, as the flames of a hot red morning played upon the masts of fishing smacks and danced in the blue wavelets beneath the barnacled docks.”) Thus, what Dovey says began as “an experiment” in retelling historic incidents of mass suffering through voiceless, vulnerable beings “to shock readers into radical empathy” became, instead, “this weird mix of short story, literary biography, and essay—with lots of details that are true to life—and then also a sort of love-letter tribute to these authors who fascinate me.”
Published last year in Australia (Dovey lives in Sydney), Only the Animals elicited a helpful blurb from J.M. Coetzee, along with several awards; it was due out in the United Kingdom in August and Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release the American edition on September 15.
Some of the book’s themes—conflict, abuse of power, and the amorphous origins of cruelty, inspiration, and empathy—also surface in Dovey’s very different debut novel, Blood Kin (2007). Set in a nameless country during a military coup, the slim, edgy book mines the complexities of collusion, with an undercurrent of danger and eroticism, through the first-person accounts of the ex-president’s barber, cook, and portraitist, all of whom are imprisoned at a remote country estate.
At Harvard, she concentrated in visual and environmental studies and anthropology, and for her senior thesis made a documentary film, Aftertaste, about changes in labor relations and cultures on South African “wine farms.” After graduation she moved to Cape Town, where she wrote Blood Kin, which was first published by Penguin South Africa. She returned to the United States for graduate studies in social anthropology at New York University, earned a master’s but left without a doctorate, then eloped in 2009 with her now-husband, Blake Munting, and moved back to Sydney, where their son, Gethin, was born in 2012. (They are expecting another child by the end of the year).
Writing has always been among Dovey’s “creative outlets.” She has actually completed eight novels (six of which, in her mind, don’t merit publication), but, despite positive reviews for Blood Kin, she continued to work as an environmental researcher and on ethnographic film projects until Only the Animals, which she readily calls “a strange book,” was published. “I never expected that. I was writing characters that were dead animals,” she explains, “and had no idea if I had gone completely nuts.” Rising confidence, along with a growing preference for the solitude and autonomy that literary art affords, led her to commit to writing full-time last year, including freelance nonfiction for The New Yorker’s blog.
Motherhood also played a role: “It made me more grateful for the time I have to write,” she adds—and ultimately more creative, especially while finishing Only the Animals in 2013. The nature of pregnancy, nursing, and caring for a newborn intensified her kinship with “the whole family of mammals.”
The book’s title stems from the work of Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” Like Coetzee, Sax, an author and academic best known for his writings on animal-human relations, has influenced Dovey, who also admits to feeling “bewildered to the point of inaction in terms of the ethical responsibilities we have toward animals and the obligations we owe them as the dominant species on earth. We treat animals in the most appalling ways right now.”
Yet Only the Animals is apolitical. It engenders empathy, shame, and sadness, but also wonder at these spirited creatures. They face what life and death bring with enviable presence of mind and body, as visceral beings. “What choice did she have,” asks the parrot in Beirut, “but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realized I was alone?”
“I am very aware that we are all creatures who suffer together, and that existence is hard for us all,” Dovey reflects. “There is something, also, about the bond we have with animals, the care and connection that we don’t appreciate or see the magic in as much as we should.” Animal guides, she points out, have graced children’s literature throughout the world. “They are like oracles, there at our very earliest attempts to build empathy and imagination.” And that takes work, she says: those capacities “do not come automatically, in the sense that cruelty is a failure of the imagination. Something happens in reading through these animal guides that is very tied up in what it means to be a good human being.” - Nell Porter Brown
The stories in Ceridwen Dovey’s inventive new collection are set in three centuries, and they take place in Australia, Europe, Africa, America and outer space. Yet for all the continent hopping and time traveling she does within these pages, Dovey’s boldest gambit has to do with her narrators — none of which is human.
“Only the Animals” concerns the inner lives of a highly articulate assortment of wild and domesticated creatures. The 10 tales in this book are told from the perspective of brainy reptiles, caged birds, itinerant invertebrates and trustworthy canines. Even a mussel gets his say.
A young writer who grew up in South Africa and Australia, Dovey has daringly shrugged off the constraints of conventional fiction. These stories are alternately funny and distressing, and while she’s aware that this sort of thing has been tried before — the book namechecks previous efforts by Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell — Dovey conjures new ways of thinking about species that are subject to humanity’s whims.
Each story delivers an emotional punch, and most make idiosyncratic allusions to literary history.
In “Psittacophile,” a parrot called Barnes — named for “Flaubert’s Parrot” author Julian Barnes — describes a tumultuous life in Lebanon. An American expatriate has adopted Barnes, and in 2006, amid fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, they’re trapped in a Beirut apartment. During a lull, Barnes and his owner venture outside, and as the story concludes, they make their way back to the pet store, where the bird can’t bring himself to fault his companion: “What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realised I was alone?”
“A Letter to Sylvia Plath” is authored by a dolphin whose admiration for the late poet stems from their shared outlooks on the nature of mammalian life: “You took enormous creaturely satisfaction in food, in sex, in smells, in your own body and its workings.” Her missive makes the case for a little more interspecies respect: “We have put our own bodies between you and the lurking shapes of sharks. We have swum very gently with your young, with your impaired. We have greeted you with leaps.”
In “Plautus: A Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” a tortoise recounts an existence alongside the famous and influential — he’s a font of gossip about the Bloomsbury Group and other English writers — and a curtain-closing stint as a research animal aboard a Russian spaceship. Orbiting his home planet, he poetically reflects on the pain he felt and witnessed during his long life: “After the first blast of creation, we were all left homeless, every creature on earth.”
Meanwhile, although he’s headed for a tragic end, the mussel that narrates “Somewhere Along the Line” is an amusing presence while he’s around. The story takes its title from a line in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” so it’s no surprise when the chatty bivalve evinces the spirit of the Beat Generation. Recalling a trip he made after attaching himself to the bottom of a battleship, the mussel says: “The whole goal was detachment, gathering no algae, freewheeling.”
In “Only the Animals,” Dovey has tried something audacious. Aiming to see the world anew, she’s crafted an unusual and beguiling ode to the feathered, the four-legged and the fearless creatures of the sea. - Kevin Canfield
Interview: Ceridwen Dovey
Ceridwen Dovey, Blood Kin, Viking, 2008.
A president is overthrown by a military coup in a nameless country, and in the midst of mass arrests, three members of the Presidential household—his barber, chef, and portraitist—are taken hostage in a remote mountain palace. Before the coup, these men worked with unquestioning loyalty, serving the President in the seemingly benign tasks of grooming him, nourishing him, and rendering his image to be hung in Parliament. But as the old order falls, the truth about these men and the significant women in their lives is revealed, and the web of complicity and duplicity begins to unravel. Dovey’s mesmerizing debut grapples with humanity’s most mercenary and animalistic instincts, and reminds us that the mad king is within us all.
A spare political fable assesses the contaminating nature of power in both public and private lives.
A small cast of nameless characters interacts intricately in Dovey’s poised debut, set in an unnamed country in the grip of political turmoil. Three men initially share the narration—a portraitist, a chef and a barber—all of whom have worked for the President and are now swept up in regime change when the Commander launches a coup. Imprisoned in the head of state’s Summer Residence, the President is beaten and forced to confront the violence he inflicted on his opponents, while the three captured workers take up their old roles, now in the service of the new leader. The portraitist’s wife, eight months pregnant, has also been taken prisoner. The barber recognizes the Commander’s wife: Previously she was the fiancée of his brother, who was one of the President’s victims. The book is divided into three parts, and in part two the women speak—the chef’s daughter and the wives—revealing their pasts and their mixed feelings toward their relations. Simultaneously sensuous and claustrophobic, the novel charts deception, estrangement and the recognition of power’s inevitably corrupting tendency. The brief but intense story concludes in a violent cycle of death, birth and grim continuity.
A dense, dark, impressively controlled first work. Not for optimists. - Kirkus Reviews
“In this elegantly structured debut novel...in lively, straightforward prose, Dovey gets to the heart of the complicit nature of the master-servant relationship, in which 'power and desire couple effortlessly.'” - The New Yorker
“More ambitious and more immediate than a fable, a story about how the slightest taste of power so easily stimulates our limitless appetite for sadism. Dovey's ultimate lesson, that nature and mankind abhor a power vacuum, may be a bleak one, but she presents her case so meticulously and relentlessly that you've got to respect her authority.” - New York Times Sunday Book Review
“Late 20th century English-language literature is rich in works of political implication that capture what might be called the aesthetics of betrayal...Dovey has extended this genre in an important way by exploring the eros of complicity. Every tyrant's accomplice partakes of it, as every act of collaboration is simultaneously one of seduction and submission...One of the things that makes Dovey's impressive novel so ruthlessly unsentimental is her implicit insistence that conscience is the illumination that every tyrant must fear -- and her explicit demonstration of just how casually that light is everywhere extinguished.” - LA Times
A terrific debut novel...a meticulously constructed story about political corruption and its impact on people’s lives...artfully bleak and ingenious.” - The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
In her splendid debut novel, Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey offers a tale about the revolutionary overthrow of a dictatorship in an unnamed country. The exchange of power she describes isn’t specific to the totalitarian governments of, say, Latin America or Africa, nor is it a critique of the sad play of current US international affairs. The novel isn’t, in fact, a commentary on our times, despite its setting in the present or the recent past. Instead, Dovey’s concern is more elemental: Blood Kin is a story about power, political and personal, and its dangerous ineffability.
The narration is circuitous: Alternating chapters—from the points of view of, first, the ousted president’s chef, barber, and portraitist and, later, the chef’s daughter, the barber’s brother’s fiancée, and the portraitist’s wife—wind back and forth in time. As all but one of these narrators are gathered in the president’s Summer Residence by the revolutionary leader, who calls himself “the Commander,” an odd map forms, linking the disparate members of this political puzzle in increasingly inauspicious terms.
The knit of Dovey’s tale, though seemingly ponderous, is tightly controlled, and her characters reveal only choice bits of themselves in each chapter. The egotistic chef gives a taste of his steadfast self-regard. When taken captive and blindfolded, his fate uncertain, he has the wherewithal to critique his gauche captors: “Once we were out of the city, I could smell that the guards in the car were eating large chunks of matured cheese that should have been consumed in small and savored doses.” At stake for the chef, barber, and portraitist is their apparent unquestioning loyalty to the president, but with the inclusion of the women’s voices, each narrator is compelled to address his or her complicity in various power structures, particularly in manipulating personal relationships to painfully self-serving ends.
Such domination is at once of the body (among the brutalized faces of the president’s victims—images disseminated by the revolutionaries as black-and-white posters—one resembles “a failed pudding”) and of the mind, a force shaped by human intention. The fiancée, one of the revolutionaries, ruefully observes that “human beings dispose of each other, set themselves up in the place of the deposed, and then go about their daily tasks. . . . Memory sieves out pain, dulls it with time, an essential trick to condemn us to repetition.” The barber, who sets himself apart from both the president and the Commander, is less equivocal: “They are all the same, these men, and it is best to nip them in the bud.” But for all his and the others’ convictions, Blood Kin reveals only that those who wield power are just as much its instrument. - Nicole Rudick
Someday, comrades, an imaginative mind may yet conjure up for us an ideal of a benevolent dictator: a man of steel who amasses power so he can give it back to the people he usurped it from; a philosopher-king who rights wrongs, balances economic inequities and still has the good sense to relinquish his control, who gets the trains to run on time and promptly splits town on the 5:15. You know, a fiction.
Until then, we’ll have to make due with the two garden-variety tyrants whose iron fists hang over the action of “Blood Kin,” Ceridwen Dovey’s precise and terrifying debut novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for while the novel’s spell lasts, it can feel like the earliest, exhilarating days under a new administration, when a pliant populace is eager and willing to follow wherever a confident leader directs us.
In an unspecified place and time, an autocratic ruler identified only as “the President” is overthrown in a coup led by an equally enigmatic figure who calls himself “the Commander.” The abrupt transfer of power is explained to us piecemeal through the alternating perspectives of three men in the President’s employ — his portrait artist, his chef and his barber — who are now held captive in the deposed leader’s summer residence, as they continue their work as prisoners of the Commander.
None of the three narrators are given proper names either, providing the story with the solemn atmosphere of a parable, though Dovey, who wrote the novel for her master’s thesis in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, slips in the occasional contemporary turn of phrase (“regime change”), perhaps to remind readers in the age of “I’m the Decider” and “stuff happens” that there might be a lesson in here specifically for us.
The tale she wants to tell is more ambitious and more immediate than a fable, a story about how the slightest taste of power so easily stimulates our limitless appetite for sadism. Sure, the President had his political enemies murdered, and sure, the Commander now uses photographs of their mutilated bodies for propaganda purposes. But even if we had no idea what life was like under their equally despotic reigns, we could immediately recognize the brutality from Dovey’s pitch-perfect renderings of her three narrators’ daily lives and routines, each one a microscopic marvel of sublimated aggression.
As the portraitist paints his pictures of the aging President, he savors the ruthlessness with which he preserves “each new wrinkle or discoloration or sausage spot”; the chef delights in eviscerating the living creatures he serves up as food and frets when his captive abalone grow wise to his schemes (“If they sensed me coming they contracted like a heart muscle and were wasted”); the barber finds satisfaction in the moment before he de-lathers the President’s face, leaving his exposed neck at the mercy of his blade.
For good measure, the chef is also a serial abuser of women — these abuses are largely of the mental and sexual variety — who keeps a photo album of all the women he has slept with or pursued, then leaves the journal in plain sight for his wife to discover. As he recounts his bedroom conquests and his own petty ascent to supremacy in his kitchen, the chef provides Dovey with an outlet for some of her most candid and chilling insights into the seductive nature of power. “I used to wonder why they called it blind ambition,” the chef reflects to himself, “because I know my eyes were wide open while I clawed my way up.”
The danger with a high-wire act like this is that its success invites a writer to try ever more perilous feats of daredevilry. Eventually, the three carefully realized portraits give way, as they must, to more conventional chapters that reveal how the men are connected to the President and the Commander. But at the book’s halfway point, Dovey suddenly introduces three female narrators: the chef’s daughter, the portraitist’s wife and the barber’s brother’s fiancée — whose title alone is a measure of how much Dovey must strain to shoehorn them into the novel. And maybe it’s my Y chromosome talking, but only the voice of the portraitist’s pregnant wife has any lasting impact, as she revels in the power she derives from her fertility and contemplates “the only true freedom,” which “comes from thinking only about oneself.”
The final movement of “Blood Kin” is a muted success: a few last-minute plot twists feel melodramatic and better suited to soap opera, but the novel’s closing pages, in which the fates of the Commander and his three servants at last converge, fold together as elegantly as origami. Dovey’s ultimate lesson, that nature and mankind abhor a power vacuum, may be a bleak one, but she presents her case so meticulously and relentlessly that you’ve got to respect her authority. - Dave Itzkoff
Through nepotism via his wife's father, a favoured tycoon, the portraitist had been hired to paint a fresh image of the President each week. He quickly collapses in captivity, wanting to hide behind his craven, resonantly culpable plea that "if I am exempt from one thing as an artist, surely it is knowing what my Government is doing?" The chef stands in ruthless contrast. Manipulative, misogynistic and wily, he is a cocky old Lothario interested only in his own fortunes, which he pursues with vigour despite his age. "We all know power and desire couple effortlessly," he reflects lazily, in an aphoristic manifesto for his character. Meanwhile, the Presdient's barber is a fastidious young man who came to the city to find an intimate contact with the President. Having gained access with his cut-throat, he had lacked the courage to murder the President in vengeance for the execution of his older brother, an underground revolutionary.
The impressionistic patina of these accounts is given depth when Dovey, right, draws in thoughts from three women: the portraitist's wife, the chef's sado-masochistic daughter and the barber's brother's fiancée – who is now the Commander's wife. Her fractured loyalties hold the key to Dovey's compressed plot, which eviscerates the corruption of the political body in the intimately drawn miniature of this slim but potent début novel.
Blood Kin doesn't aspire to the intense psychological anxieties mustered by similar explorations of collusion and oppression, such as Thomas Kenneally's Saddam cipher, The Tyrant's Novel. The trauma of physical violence is kept off stage whilst Dovey strategically deploys snapshots of family heritage. The effect is tense and dramatic, as though the claustrophobic pressures of a country house murder mystery, in which all are implicated by motive or connection, had been transplanted on to the political instability of Garcia Màrquez's revolutionary landscapes. Dovey draws strong, vivid characters and her keen eye for signposting detail ("a faint pattern of salt on his cheeks" revealing night tears) gives a sensual counterpoint to the ruthless logic of her subtly heralded dénouement.
- James Urquhart
The old dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is put to the test in Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin. Throughout this portrait of a small republic following a coup, Dovey seems to question whether it’s those who seek power who are already corrupted.
Blood Kin is, like all good fables, deceptively simple. Extraneous details are removed. We have no names, no place names, no national history. The story effectively takes place in an ahistorical, ageographical landscape. It could be anywhere at any time, which is rather the point. The details we are given suggest something like Latin America in the 1980s or 1990s, but by refusing to ground the novel in a time and place, Dovey has given her novel additional punch.
Our protagonists in this tale are three men, closely aligned with the old regime and taken hostage along with the former President. They are his barber, his cook, and his portrait-artist. Each narrates alternating chapters throughout the first part, telling the story of how they came to know the deposed leader and how they ended up in captivity with him.
The chapters are brief and to the point. Information and the reader’s understanding accumulate over time, as each part of the puzzle connects with adjoining pieces. Yet the President remains enigmatic throughout. The stories told by the three working men are more illuminating in what they say about the men themselves than about their employer or their country.
When the reader has begun to consider that they understand the situation, the author opens up new perspectives to show that all that has been related before may not be entirely accurate. Halfway through, the chapter narrators switch to three women, each of whom is associated with one of the men and each of whom was introduced in the first part. However, in referring to “his barber’s brother’s fiancée”, Dovey is being slightly disingenuous. This strong, complex female character is far more than an appendage to the men she knows and the writer knows this.
Yet the women are also something less than the independent spirits they would like to be. The country in which the story takes place is inherently patriarchal, to an even greater degree than most. Fathers dominate their daughters; men control their spouses and girlfriends. All political leaders are militarily minded and masculine. The women are hemmed in by conventions and the men in their lives.
Perhaps Dovey is presenting the simplistic (but common) assertion than a world run by women would be a world without wars. Certainly her female characters seem to be more alert to the absurdity of the power games going on than the men. Their feminine wisdom stands in stark contrast to the men’s pride and foolishness. In this, Dovey’s heavily stylised approach to situation and character does diminish the force of this point. Without some kind of narrative realism, the characters seem too much like straw men and the sociological points become more polemical, more contrived and therefore less true.
That is not to say that the novel’s women are perfect, or that the male characters are all bad. Dovey seems to be more interested in general human behaviour than point-scoring in some battle of the sexes. All the narrators are sympathetic to varying degrees. The author’s balance of stylised morality tale with deep characterisation is on a par with David Maine’s excellent Old Testament retellings, probably the best recent example of this technique.
Where Dovey is especially clever is in her unwillingness to give the standard clues and signals for which characters to sympathise with. In books without a clear hero or heroine, writers typically indicate (with varying degrees of subtlety) upon a character’s introduction whether they will be the “good guy” or the “bad guy”. Moral ambiguity is allowed, but usually within the framework of the character’s essential decency or general malignity.
Our six principal characters are all introduced on their own terms and in their own words. It is their perspective which we are expected to accept until other perspectives conflict. And conflict they do—particularly in the sharp contrasts between the narratives of the portraitist and his wife.
The delayed revelations of character and motivation are effective in generating the element of surprise. If Blood Kin is a novel about the evil that lurks beneath the surface, then Dovey is set on keeping some of it concealed until the very end. And the final twists, when they come, are a mix of the surprising, the subconsciously expected, and the downright strange.
Just about everything that has gone before develops significance in the end and the author’s eye for detail is revealed to be more than a mere love of minutiae. This is a novel with a clear sense of purpose. Its economical length (less than 200 pages) and tight structure reveal this to be a fable in the truest sense of the word. And it’s a stylish one, too.
You probably won’t read another debut novel this year that is as assured and ruthlessly efficient as Blood Kin. Maybe Dovey is a bit of a guerrilla warrior herself. - David Pullar