I guess I have to start somewhere

by ishmael

First words, first steps, first man on the moon: all very momentous. A first blog post is definitely not on the same level. Still, it feels like I should say something profound here to kick things off. But time is getting on, and since I doubt I’ll be able to come up with anything suiting the supposed gravity of the occasion, I’m going to skip over introductions and just start talking about a book I just finished reading this morning.

I am entirely against the proverb that one should not judge a book by its cover. Subtext aside, I make a lot of decisions about what to read based on covers. I like to browse the shelf of new fiction in the public library and pick out something that catches my eye, something with a bright cover or an interesting title or an author I’ve never heard of, and that’s how I ended up choosing Only the Animals by Cerwiden Dovey (the cover is a lovely shade of blue with stars and drawings of animals in silver, including a tortoise!). I do tend to favor short story collections, since they’re easier to read in bits and pieces and are therefore less likely to impel me to stay up past my bedtime to see how the whole book ends, and Only the Animals checks that box as well.

Of course, not all good books have attractive covers; similarly, a good cover can’t redeem mediocre contents. In this case, though, the interior and exterior were pretty well matched. It’s not a cheerful book. The title page for each story tells us what to expect by giving a year of death; none of these animals are living happily ever after beyond the story. The lives of the animals are tangled up with humans, and that entanglement leads to some dark places as human conflicts spill over into the lives of other species. We see zoo animals, pet animals, working animals, wild animals, even animals trained to assist in military operations, and we witness their unnatural deaths in the midst of wars. Some will die gracefully (the tortoise, I would say, manages this); some will not (the chimpanzee…oh dear).

You might be reading this description and thinking, “man, that sounds grim and potentially preachy,” and the premise of the collection – humans fight, poor little animals suffer the consequences – definitely could go in that direction. Luckily, though, Cerwiden Dovey manages to avoid veering into Sarah McLachlan ASPCA ad territory. The animals live, and then they die, and that’s where the stories end: there is no saccharine mourning, no call for peace on behalf of the poor beasts caught up in the machinations of unprincipled humans. Red Peter the chimp and Plautus the tortoise tell rather depressing life stories, but they do not ask for our pity. As a reader, that takes a burden off of me: I can laugh when the stories are funny, I can enjoy the styles of narration without feeling guilty just because I know that the stories all end with a dead animal. So, grim, yes; but preachy, no (and thank goodness for that).

In sum (tl;dr for all the young folk out there), I think that Only the Animals is worth reading once. We humans don’t come off very well in any of the stories, but really, we don’t deserve to (so far as I know no other metazoan has started a World War). I think there’s a tendency to see human conflict as exclusively human, and it is in the sense that we start it, but the damage zone is larger than our own species. Whether or not you think a mussel or a tortoise or a parrot should be considered sentient, I think it’s worth imagining what a human war might look like from a truly neutral perspective.