My twin sister and I, like all young elephants in our herd, were raised on a feast of stories about our ancestors, whose souls glowed at us from constellations in the sky. On certain summer evenings, the elders would point out identifying features among the stars: the tip of a trunk, or the triangular ends of an ear spread out in preparation for a charge, the same shape as the continent of Africa. They would tell us the story of one of these hallowed forebears looking down on us. My sister and I liked to reenact what we had heard, living out an ancestor’s great moments on earth and imagining what it might feel like to die and be transmuted into a soul that sparkles forever, wheeling about on an invisible axis.
The souls of ten animals, each killed in a human conflict of the past century or so, tell the story of their deaths in turn. There is the camel killed in colonial Australia and the blue mussel killed in Pearl Harbour; the cat who died in the trenches in World War I and the bear who starved to death during the siege of Sarajevo; the dog who lost his life on the Eastern Front in World War II and the parrot killed during the 2006 bombing of Beirut; the ape who died in Germany during World War I and the Russian tortoise lost in space during the Cold War; the elephant killed in the civil war in Mozambique and the dolphin who chose to die during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Each of the animals also pays homage to a human writer who has written imaginatively about animals during much the same time span, from Henry Lawson to Ted Hughes, from Kafka to J.M. Coetzee, from Colette to Virginia Woolf, from Tolstoy to José Saramago, from Günter Grass to Jack Kerouac, from Tom Stoppard to Julian Barnes. As the soul of the tortoise explains, borrowing the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz, ‘So little of the total suffering, human or animal, can ever make its way into literature in the end. When it does, we should pay attention, and pay our respects.’
A tribute both to authors and to animals, this is a book that asks some difficult questions and doesn’t pretend to know the answers. Why do animals sometimes shock us into feeling things we can’t seem to feel for other humans? Why do animals allow authors to say the unsayable? Can we become intimate with an author by understanding his or her symbolic use of animals? Is it still possible to feel something authentic for other living beings caught up in fatal conflict in a time of compassion fatigue? Is a different relationship with animals possible if we no longer make them marginal to our lives and deaths? Can fiction really help us to find meaning, or even morality? And as the soul of the dolphin wonders in her narrative, why do we sometimes treat humans as animals, and sometimes treat animals as humans?
Only The Animals asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other human beings, and to believe again – just for a moment – in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.
A note on sources
Given that the stories in Only the Animals pay homage to many authors who have written about animals, I am indebted both directly and indirectly to multiple works of literature. Many of the animal narrators intentionally use words, phrases and sentences taken verbatim from the work of other authors. Where appropriate, permission to reprint material has been requested and included in the print version of the book. Please click here for a complete list of sources.
“I have just finished a remarkable book, Only the Animals, by South African-born Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey. In 10 self-contained yet emotionally and philosophically connected stories, the souls of 10 animals tell us about their lives and deaths, often as a result of human conflict such as war, always as a result of human actions...I shouldn’t reveal too much more about it except to say that this book, Dovey’s second after the acclaimed 2007 novel Blood Kin, confirms her as a singular talent. ”
“An extraordinary series of fabulist tales in homage to literary greats about animals in wartime…Only the Animals is an audacious work of the imagination.”
“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…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.”
- The Saturday Paper
“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… 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.”
- The Saturday Paper