Published on:

November 19, 2014

Book Burrow: The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

Book Burrow: The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

By Saryta Rodriguez

I first encountered this gem while babysitting for the Chen family in Oakland Hills one chilly summer night.  I had heard of Coetzee’s Tanner lectures and some of his other writings, but not this one.  The Chens seemed to feel lukewarm about it; some fellow activists laughed in my face when I mentioned I’d borrowed it.  Others had never heard of it.

Needless to say, I had little notion of what to expect.

First, allow me to extoll the literary device, the meta-ness—the many, many layers of meta-ness; and not of the superfluous, Inception kind. A kind that matters and is useful.  Elizabeth Costello is Coetzee’s fictional character, a novelist invited to Appleton College for three days to talk about whatever she wants.  Everyone expects her to talk about her novels, or about the craft of fiction writing more generally; to the academy’s chagrin (not to mention that of her son, John Bernard, a professor at Appleton who would have preferred no one find out about his famous mother), she instead devotes her lectures to animals.  A liberationist speaker writing a fiction piece about a fiction author giving liberationist speeches.  Brilliant.

The novel is humorous, colorful and honest, with points scored on both sides.  Day One is Elizabeth’s first lecture, entitled The Philosopher and the Animals. Day Two consists of her second lecture, The Poets and the Animals, as well as a reception dinner. On Day Three, the university hosts a debate between Elizabeth and Thomas O’Hearne, professor of philosophy at Appleton.

Elizabeth’s answers are not always coherent; she rambles, goes on tangents.  Still, her examples are powerful and carefully chosen; her discussions of Franz Kafka's "A Report to an Academy" and Ted Hughes’s poem The Jaguar were, I thought, particularly gratifying.  She also scores what she herself refers to as “cheap shots” by comparing animal enslavement to the Holocaust early in her first lecture—an offense for which an aging poet, Abraham Stern, refuses to attend the reception dinner held in Elizabeth’s honor.

Elizabeth’s son is embarrassed by her.  He wishes she would just go away, just stop talking about animals; where did this all come from, anyway? She didn’t used to be this way; maybe she’s just going senile? His wife, Norma, is a psychologist who hates Elizabeth and badgers John every evening with counterarguments to Elizabeth’s lectures.

I found it impossible to avoid begging the questions throughout the text: Is this how J.M. Coetzee feels? Is he Elizabeth? Is he Norma, and guilt-stricken by it? Is Elizabeth an exaggeration of himself, an alter-ego, or an ideal? A nightmare?  How much of this is really fiction? The facts were real. The arguments made sense—on both sides, though I ultimately sided with Elizabeth on those few occasions on which she actually answered a question. I was frustrated that at times she only made some vague comments about a question before delving into some story or other and then promptly apologizing for rambling or being old.  Sometimes her son says to his wife for the reader’s benefit, “She’s rambling now.”  As more that one critic have noted, this allows Coetzee to be evasive without sacrificing credibility.

Yes, a cheap trick on Coetzee’s part; but there's so much ultimate truth, too—so much boldness—in this piece. The characters are vivid, the conversations all too familiar. The dinner party scene was memorable for its strong, efficient character development as well as the discussion of consciousness as a “smoke screen” initiated and dominated by a gentleman surnamed Wunderlich. Wunderlich employs the example of born human babies to illustrate that ultimately, consciousness is moot with respect to life value. A baby is not as conscious as a grown man; yet we consider the murder of a baby to be among the vilest crimes anyone can commit.

The Lives of Animals was the subject of four primary critiques, which are published at the end of the novel and have received high acclaim: by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, and Barbara Smuts.  While I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of them, I’d have to give a slight advantage to the one enclosed last: that which was penned by primatologist Barbara Smuts. It simply resonated with me the most. (The order in which these critiques are presented is, I believe, fitting.) A close second would be Peter Singer’s response, if only for the novelty (pun intended) of the fact that he utilized the same device Coetzee himself had in order to respond to him: he hid behind a veil of fiction. His is not Peter Singer’s lecture about Coetzee; it is a conversation between Peter and his daughter Naomi, who don’t exist, about Elizabeth Costello, who also doesn’t exist. 

A beautiful blend of some of my favorite things: animal liberation, literature, poetry. This book rocked. Clever, short and sweet—and truly enriched by the enclosed responses. 4 out of 5 stars.