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Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey

June 26, 2014

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

In Olaf Stapledon’s novel Sirius, a scientist creates a dog with humanlike intelligence. The novel traces Sirius’s growing contempt for the stupidity and destructiveness of human beings. As he is “only an animal”, people give themselves away in his presence, doing things they criticise in others. He illustrates Boria Sax’s comment: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.”

Stapledon’s friend, Virginia Woolf, also wrote a book about a dog. Flush: A Biography is the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. In one of the stories in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, Woolf is writing the book, and reads extracts to her companion, Plautus the tortoise. One such passage shows Elizabeth and Flush as equals in their inability ever to fully understand each other: “Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.”


In the first story, a camel hears Henry Lawson say he liked to put animals in his stories because it made the humans look worse. (Photo: State Library of Qld)

Dovey bridges this gulf, at least from the animal’s side. Her ten stories are narrated by the souls of animals killed in human conflicts, and they have human intelligence in spades. They understand human language, express their thoughts and feelings fluently to other animals, have psychological insights into the humans around them, and tell ripping yarns. This unbridled anthropomorphism is set within an otherwise realist mode.

This should not work, but it does. How does Dovey do it?

Firstly, her creatures engage the reader through their strong personalities, which derive partly from their character as members of their species and partly from their humanlike minds. For example, one of the stories is narrated by a blue mussel, Myti. We mainly see mussels as something good to eat, and would not imagine them to have exciting lives. Yet Myti and his mates are among the most engaging characters in the book, as they undertake a Kerouac-like odyssey across America by clever means, and then hitch a ride on a battleship to Pearl Harbour.

Secondly, she makes use of the ability of many animals to sense the condition and mood of humans. This is clearest in the story by the dolphin, who says: “The tingling many humans report feeling during an encounter with us isn’t endorphins, it’s because we’ve just scanned you to know you in all dimensions. We see through you, literally.” Dovey extends this ability in ways we would normally find hard to believe, especially in the story of Plautus, who understands the psychology of her succession of owners – a hermit, Alexandra Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Tom Stoppard. But because it is an extension of an ability we suspect animals have, we suspend our disbelief.

Thirdly, we humans like to hear about ourselves. What do our brother and sister species think of us? As a whole the book becomes a conversation between ten animal souls about what it means to be human. When we are with animals, with no other humans present, we become more ourselves, as Sirius observed. Sometimes we might even feel that animals are on to us.

Baby elephant

Elephants enjoy life, until disaster strikes. (Photo: Steve Begin, CC licence)

We can never say that this or that is what humans are or, for that matter, what animals are. Rather, we “contain multitudes”, and the ten narrators hint at those multitudes. Dovey borrows the chimpanzee imagined by Kafka, Red Peter, who says that what sets humans apart from other animals is not “their ability to love, grieve, feel guilt, think abstractly … [but] their talent for masochism”. In another story, Himmler’s German Shepherd learns that “kindness, like cruelty, can be an expression of domination.” Searching questions for humans are posed by some of the narrators, such as the dolphin:  “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals? And why so you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?”

Fourthly, Dovey uses her hybrid creatures to show what qualities humans share with their brother and sister animals. The elephant’s story is particularly moving in its portrayal of family and herd relationships, sex, birth, child-rearing, and he yearning for both freedom and safety. The parrot’s story shows the destructive effects of trauma on animals and humans. As Israel bombs Lebanon, “I self-mutilated, ripping out my own plumage, plucking myself bare.”

This book reminded me of one of the first novels I read as a child. Man-Shy, by Frank Dalby Davison, is the story of a red heifer who escapes from the herd and eventually leads a band of wild scrubbers in the Queensland ranges. Her drive for freedom is absolute, and her story tells us something about the compromises humans have made. Later, as a teenager, I read Sirius, and was exhilarated by the feeling of a dog running free through unbounded country. It gave me a lifelong prejudice against those who keep large dogs confined in small spaces. Only the Animals is another classic exercise in inter-species empathy. Reading it is an experience I will remember as vividly as I do the earlier books.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2014 6:15 pm

    Olaf Stapledon is one of my favourite authors. I have read most of his novels and I love them all. Last and First Men should be recognized as a Classic but whenever I mention his name 99.99% of readers have never heard of him. Maybe because Sirius was banned for so many years. Same era as Tolkein, but every dog has it’s day. Hopefully Stapledon will be given the recognition that he deserves.

    • Bryce permalink*
      June 26, 2014 9:54 pm

      Yes, it must be time for a Stapledon revival. I read him in my teens, a long time ago when he was perhaps more known than now. I remember my awe at the vast scope of Last and First Men. He had a powerful imagination.

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