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.
ONLY THE ANIMALS
By Ceridwen Dovey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
248 pp., $25
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and a book critic for Commonweal.