Arts: The Elephant Woman Animal Farm, Watership Down, the Jungle Book. Writers Normally Use an Imals in Fiction to Say Something about Human Nature. in Her Ambitious Novel about Elephants, However, Barbara Gowdy Is Trying to Tell Us about Them. by Rachel Halliburton
Halliburton, Rachel, The Independent (London, England)
Once they put a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, that was it. As well as waking humanity up to sex, lies, and all the rest, this slithery embodiment of evil started a whole genre of literature in which chimpanzees could have PhDs, elephants could go to crocodiles for nose- jobs, and pigs could drink whisky and play cards. There is no doubt that in both Eastern and Western cultures, animals have proved an extraordinary literary device by which humans can hold up a tellingly distorting mirror to their own natures. They have been worshipped and feared in mystical texts, dressed up and sent up in satirical works, and reduced to the cute and cuddly for children all over the world.
Barbara Gowdy's novel, The White Bone, therefore walks on to a stage already crowded with characters growling, howling, and meowing for attention. Take a trip back to second century Rome, and you will come across Apuleius's The Golden Ass, an early novel in which the central character is changed into an ass through experimenting with magical ointments. The novel - which is seen by some as an allegory for the way in which the soul can be degraded through the senses - ends with his restoration to human form by the eastern goddess, Isis.
In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift took a satirical side-swipe at society by comparing it unfavourably with the enlightened rational horses called the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels. Humans were teased by the vision of a society in which creatures with manes and tails had the upper hoof on sensitivity and articulacy: the humans themselves were more uncomfortably similar to the brutish, ape-like Yahoos. Fast forward to this century, and you are overwhelmed by authors who have decided to say it with grunts, oinks, and squeaks. Kipling's Just So Stories and The Jungle Book are joined by C S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Richard Adams's Watership Down, and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty in a menagerie full of children's books, while Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Orwell's Animal Farm stand out as infamous adult classics. Will Self's late-century anthropomorphic antics in Great Apes have fast been followed by such books as John Berger's novel about homelessness from a dog's perspective (King: a Street Story), Paul Auster's novel about prejudice from a dog's perspective (Timbuktu), and now we have Gowdy's book, The White Bone. But there is an important difference with this latter work. Despite their manifest diversity, all the other books on the list dance backwards and forwards over the boundaries between human and animal identity to say something aboutmankind. George Orwell may have drawn deeply on several animals' characteristics to create his characters for Animal Farm, but did anyone ever mistake their campaign for equality for a bid for vegetarianism? And in Will Self's joyful linguistic caper through his chimp society, insights on chimps are simply used to tease readers with reflections of their pretentious selves in these hairy, bottom- obsessed individuals: as in the wonderful moment when eminent psychologist Dr Zack Busner "checked his arsehole once more in the hall mirror, then let himself out the front door." It can be fairly concluded, then, that writers usually exploit animals' difference merely to conform them to our image. It should consequently come as no surprise to someone who has read any of Barbara Gowdy's prize- winning work that she has decided not to take this course. Gowdy's trademark has become her sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of those who are normally sidelined in society as "freakish" or "weird". In her collection of short stories, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story gives a compelling account of a beautiful young necrophiliac, and of her arousal by the "energy" of disintegrating corpses that makes her ultimately unable to take any relationship with living men seriously. …