Thursday, January 06, 2011

If we could talk to the animals...

We all need a diversion from world events (and life in general) every now and then. I love this one. Of course, my list would be somewhat different from the one that Mr. Medvei has come up with. What qualifies as literature? If Tin Tin's Snowy qualifies, what about Francis the Talking Mule? Where's Baloo the Bear?

Let the debate begin. (GW)

Cornelius Medvei's top 10 talking animals in literature

Children's books would be lost without animal characters, but the beastly perspective on human life has much to offer grown-ups, says Cornelius Medvei

By Cornelius Medvei
January 6, 2011

Born in 1977, Cornelius Medvei's first novel, Mr Thundermug, featured an ape who acquires the art of speech, while in his second, Caroline: A Mystery, a man's life is turned upside down when he meets a donkey called Caroline.

"Many of these animal characters are from children's books. It's true that children like books with animals in them, but I'm always surprised when people assume that because a book has animals in it, it must be a book for children. It seems to me that animal characters are far too complex and interesting to be confined to children's books. Their appeal lies not only in the comic and unsettling combination of human and animal traits, but also in the way they provoke other characters to reveal themselves through their reactions to them. This was what led me to Caroline, the enigmatic chess-playing donkey who inspires such varied reactions of perplexity, indifference and unwavering devotion in those who encounter her."

1. Tobermory ('Tobermory' by Saki)

"'What do you think of human intelligence?' asked Mavis Pennington lamely.

'Of whose intelligence in particular?' asked Tobermory coldly."

At Lady Blemley's house party, it is discovered that Tobermory the cat has been taught to speak by one of the guests. ("Cats," says Cornelius Appin, the guest in question, "those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts.") The initial amazement of the other guests quickly gives way to alarm as they realise the embarrassment that may be caused by an intelligent and articulate animal that spends its time "creeping about our bedrooms and under chairs, and so forth," as another guest puts it.

2. Eeyore (Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne)

Like many of the other characters in these two books, Eeyore is a slightly dysfunctional human adult masquerading as an animal. I always enjoy his relentless pessimism and heavy sarcasm: he is so extravagantly gloomy that even as a child, encountering him for the first time, you know not to take him seriously.

3. Behemoth (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)

The Devil pays a visit to Soviet Moscow. Among his retinue is Behemoth, a demon in the form of a huge black cat, who cheats at chess, puts glitter on his whiskers and goes to a ball wearing a white bow tie and carrying opera glasses. His deviousness, clowning and attention-seeking have something fittingly and convincingly cattish about them.

4. Lucius (The Golden Ass by Apuleius)

In this Latin novel, Lucius rubs himself with a stolen ointment which he believes will turn him into an owl. Instead, due to a mix-up with the magic ointments, he finds himself becoming a donkey. In his subsequent life as a beast of burden he is subjected to various abuses and indignities including beatings, threats of castration and bestiality, before the goddess Isis intervenes and brings about his transformation back into a man. Despite all this, the tone of the book, in Robert Graves' translation at least, is surprisingly light-hearted.

5. Red Peter ('A Report for an Academy' by Franz Kafka)

Red Peter is an ape, and the story consists of his testimony to the academy of the title. He explains how, after being captured in Africa by a hunting expedition and kept in a cage on the deck of the boat taking him to Europe, he learned to shake hands, smoke a pipe, drink schnapps, and finally to speak, in the hope of escaping his captivity. In this he has had some success. But as he reminds the members of the academy, "your ape nature, gentlemen ... cannot be further removed from you than mine is from me."

6. Toad (The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

Of all the characters in The Wind in the Willows, Toad is the one who interests me most, in part because he is so entertainingly flawed, but also because he has the most interaction with people, and is consequently the character whose ambiguous status in the human world is most thoroughly explored. One moment he's a poor dumb animal caught in the pitiless workings of the human justice system, the next he is a country squire patronising the jailer's daughter.

7. Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare)

This is a partial transformation, as Bottom only has an ass's head imposed on him; the rest of his body remains unchanged. As a result, not having a mirror to hand, he is unaware of what has happened to him – hence the unconscious comedy of lines such as "I am marvellous hairy about the face."

8. Hansaburo ('Horse Legs' by Ryunosuke Akutagawa)

Another partial transformation, this time involving an office worker, Hansaburo, who collapses and dies at his desk. It turns out, however, that his death is the result of an administrative error in the celestial bureaucracy. By the time the mistake is discovered, his legs have started to decompose, so he is sent back into the world with two legs from a horse that has just died. The rest of the story describes his torments with fleas, his struggle to curb the natural tendency of his new legs to gallop down the middle of the street, and his increasingly desperate attempts to hide his condition from his colleagues and his wife.

9. archy ('archy & mehitabel' by Don Marquis)

archy is an exception – a vers libre poet trapped in the body of a cockroach, the result not of a magical transformation but of Pythagoras's theory of the transmigration of souls after death. Although he is no less articulate than any talking animal, he does not actually speak: his free verse communications are laboriously banged out on a typewriter.

10. Snowy (The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé)

The comic strip format allows for an interesting refinement: Snowy and Tintin address each other directly, and the reader is privy to everything they say, but they do not necessarily understand each other. Snowy also has a conscience, which comes into play whenever he finds some spilt whisky, and works just like Captain Haddock's human conscience: a devil appears at one shoulder, urging him to drink; an angel appears at the other, urging him to refrain. Whether this moral equivalence between man and dog reflects well on Snowy or badly on Captain Haddock is open to debate.


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