Monday, 23 December 2013

Speaking of animals

A book reviewer would need to keep in mind the multiple editions
The cover of the book I read
(US edition 2011)

A story about animals, about their flight away from human oppression – could only be allegorical, I think. Amos Oz did what he is best at: write an allegory, and write it as if the whole of his audience would become vegetarians afterwards. The likelihood of that is pretty high, considering the scope of the tale and the purpose of its telling.

Really, the feeling at the end of the book is that this is a text that fits perfectly this age – the age of militant activism, where we seem to speak more and more in words that persuade rather than in words that please. Not that this tiny book is not pleasing. Far from it. But the point is this: it reads like an attempt at indoctrination. The boy (Matti) and girl (Maya) who leave their village hoping to find the animals that had disappeared long time ago, meet Nehi the Mountain Demon – a former villager who had been bullied into leaving the village. In revenge, he took all the animals with him. The village became empty. Oz is great at evoking this: the idea of a village utterly silent in the absence of animals.
“No cow mooed, no donkey brayed, no bird chirped, no flock of wild geese crossed the empty sky, and the villagers barely spoke to each other beyond the essential things."
What seems to be the most painful aspect of this absence is the companionship of animals. What the humans in the village seem to crave the most is not the taste of animal meat, but their faithful, cheerful, friendly presence. One character builds a scarecrow he spends his day talking to. The scarecrow is a surrogate for the lost dog in whose company he used to live. Another character craves for the sound made by the woodworms which used to lull him into sleep every night. When the worms disappear, along with the other animals, he is struck by insomnia. Yet another character scatters around breadcrumbs, in the hope that, one day, some birds will come and enjoy the feast.
That’s Amos Oz – his storytelling talent. The idea he’s proposing for reflection is an old one: you only start appreciating something when it is no longer within your grasp. And he couriers this idea towards the readers in a pretty persuasive way.
But at the end of the novella we get to the point where the text reads like a handbook of proselytism. It’s really only two pages before the end of the book. Nehi, who has accommodated the two children in his utopian garden of paradise, tells them they should go back. They should return to their village, but do it as converts.
“Talk to them. And talk to the insulters and even the abusers and all the ones who take pleasure in other people’s misfortunes. Please, both of you, talk to anyone who will listen. Try to talk even to the ones who make fun of you and condemn you and mock you. Don’t let them get to you – just try to tell them over and over again.”
I’m not going into a close analysis here, but there are aspects that resemble the proselytizing discourse of a lot of texts written nowadays. From weight-loss to vegetarianism, from environmentalism to organic living. In all of these, and in many other instances, there’s this constant urge to “tell them over and over again.” Because this age of ours is an age where we need to persuade others that our way is the best one; and we need to persuade them not in a rhetorical sense, but in a political one.
What makes me think that this is political persuasion? The presence of a threat; not just a fear, a phobia, a sickness of the mind, but a threat that presents itself through its consequences. If the villagers don’t listen to the words of the two children – i.e. if they don’t agree to become animal-loving creatures – they will never see their animals again. If you don’t follow the path, you suffer – that’s the message of all forms of indoctrination. The promise is always hidden behind a threat, and you only rid yourself of a threat if you accept the conditions.
I’m not saying that Suddenlyin the Depths of the Forest is a bad book. I’m not saying it is an evil book. It is none of the above. But it is very much a book of this age. And books – we know – are very rarely timeless (as in not being anchored in the time and place in which they are created). It’s the virtue of Amos Oz’s, then, to have written a book that sounds so familiar – a book that makes an attempt at promoting values of love and friendship. That’s also one thing books do: they promote love and friendship; we are better after having read a book, aren't we?
So yes, love and friendship. Two values that we promote as fundamentally human. So human, they would match the discourse of SPCA, of any Green Party, of any Al Gore ecologism. Or maybe some other, longer-lasting discourses we are so familiar with that it only takes the flicker of a candle to recognize.
Here’s this, on the very last page:
“As Maya and Matti came out of the dark forest, hand in hand, and walked toward the lights of the village, Matti said to Maya, We have to tell Almon. We have to tell Emanuella. We have to tell Danir.
Maya said, Not just them, Matti. We’ll have to tell everyone. My mother. The old people. Your parents. And it won’t be easy for us.”
I read this and I’m thinking of the New Testament (Oz is a Jew, but discourses migrate with extravagant ease, don’t they?). The Bible says:
“If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower” (Luke: 14:26).
Interestingly enough, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest is also a book about standing out (like the passage in Luke, which requires the followers to abandon their families, their communities) – a book about not following into the footprints of one’s parents, and about the pain one experiences when the crowd notices the drift. The villagers are mostly afraid of an imagined disease which they call ‘whoopitis.’ It is something that makes them whoop – i.e. turns them into something non-human, into animals of sorts.
Nehi sees this fear of isolation, of singularity, not only in humans, but in animals too:
“You edge a little bit away from the swarm just once or twice, and they won’t let you back in. Because you already have whoopitis.”
Whoopitis is the sign of one’s standing on the other side of the community – the sign of the revolutionary.
It’s exactly the revolutionary that needs proselytes, in order to acquire certitude that his/her path is not as crooked as it had been considered by the others. The proselyte is the revolutionary’s confirmation, the warrant of their argument. The number of followers makes one’s YouTube video acceptable. The number of ‘likes’ makes one a public voice. Without them, there would be only an ugly video, a repulsive blog post etc. And so, it makes sense to populate a little book about standing out with characters that strive to acquire followers – characters who, ultimately, strive to create ideologies of their own.
A tiny book of our big times, then. Worth reading, no doubt. Worth, also, thinking about – with the distance that it requires, with the distance that it creates. Because Oz too is a writer of his time, who militates for good causes – causes so good that they are almost impossible to be read critically.

N.B.: By ‘critical’ reading I don’t mean ‘counter’ reading, but the kind of reading that asks questions about the foundations of a text. And when it comes to foundations, no text is safe – no text should be safe.