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Only the Animals - Ceridwen Dovey

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Published: 23rd April 2014
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In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette's theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany, Himmler's dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. In the siege of Sarajevo, a bear starving to death tells a fairytale; and a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath.

Ten animal souls tell extraordinary stories about their lives and deaths, caught up in human conflicts of the last century and its turnings. Together they form an animal's eye view of humans at both our brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best. Exquisitely written, playful and poignant, Only the Animals is a remarkable literary achievement by one of our brightest young writers. It asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other people, and to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.

Read Caroline Baum's Review

Golly. This is a totally original, really bold idea: a collection of short stories told by animals. Animals in the human world, interacting with us and observing how we behave in times of conflict. And not just that, but these animals are literary creatures: Colette's cat taking a stroll through a trench on the Western Front; a tortoise once owned by the Tolstoy family drifting through space during the Cold War; a dolphin trained by the US navy that writes a letter to Sylvia Plath. Unlike anything I've come across, this is writing that takes enormous risks, is funny, surreal, unpredictable. Without preachiness, Dovey has found a really fresh and interesting way to examine our brutality and our humanity, to remind us of what we share with other creatures and what separates us from our animal companions. A major talent with something universal to say.

About the Author

Ceridwen Dovey was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and went to high school in Sydney. She did her undergraduate study at Harvard, and spent a year as research assistant for the current affairs program NOW with Bill Moyers. She wrote her novel Blood Kin as her thesis for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, and has a PhD in anthropology from New York University. She now lives in Sydney.

'Only the Animals is mesmerizing and exhilarating, funny and moving. It has elements of strangeness and greatness, like Kafka. Dovey's exquisitely drawn creatures grapple nobly with their animal natures, a genius point of view from which to illuminate how we humans - ostensibly conscious and verbal - are trapped in ours. This book feels like a major mind announcing itself.' - Anna Funder

Waiting for the tomcat

It is long after midnight and still the tomcat has not returned to his parapet above the trench adjacent to mine. I have been waiting for him, primed by the soldiers' talk of his legendary night-hunting skills out in no man's land and the way he fearlessly cleans himself while exposed in the sun on the parapet, even in the heaviest bombardments. The soldiers welcomed me when I arrived but seemed a little disappointed that I wasn't also a tom – they like to bet on anything and everything, these boys, and I think they would have liked a wager on who would win the scrap of the tomcats.

What they don't know is that I've always felt I was meant to be a tom and not a she-cat. Colette understands this, my beloved Colette who inadvertently left me behind here at the front after a brave secret visit to her new husband, the awful Henri, who was made sergeant at the outbreak of war and fully believes he deserves the title. She didn't know that I'd stowed away in her vehicle in Paris, overcoming my detestation of blur and movement. But while I was outside the car, distracted by a blackbird, she was discovered and sent back to Paris, before I'd been able to surprise her with the warmth of my body at her shins. Now I'm trapped here until she realises what has happened – she will, I'm sure of it, with her cat-like instincts – and returns to collect me.

I've kept a low profile, and done my surveillance work discreetly. The officers' quarters, far from the fire trenches, appealed due to their trimmings and comforts, but I know the sergeant has always been jealous of Colette's love for me, and would be delighted to see me harmed. Alone with him one evening in their apartment in Paris, I sensed his malevolence so strongly that my usually dry paws became wet with sweat, and I disappeared the way only a cat can and did not re-emerge from my hiding place until she was home.

I moved away from the base reserve camp, past the support line, and arrived at this mud-churned front, though I would dearly have loved to stay close to the pigeon loft to catch one of those earnest little birds ferrying messages in aluminium capsules attached to their legs. Can it be true they are motivated to fly the distances they do for the meagre promise of being reunited with their mate on the other side of the partition on their return? They look delicious to me even when they come back ragged and bloody, almost torn apart by German bullets or German hawks, about to drop dead from fatigue. I enjoyed the jokes their human handlers told too. A male pigeon falls in love with a female pigeon and sets up a rendezvous at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He arrives on time. Two hours later, when he is about to give up and leave, she arrives and says casually, 'So sorry I'm late. It's such a lovely day, I thought I'd walk.'

The fire trench is not my ideal environment, but at least I know the sergeant will rarely set foot here, and the young men who fill these trenches are so miserably bothered by rats which have developed a taste for human flesh that they are glad to claim me as their own trench cat to rival the tomcat next door. It shocked Colette to see what has become of this swathe of the countryside. So many times I have accompanied her on visits to her mother in the small village in Burgundy where she grew up in pastoral paradise. She can summon vignettes of a way of life that most Parisians have long lost: resting her feet on a metal foot warmer filled with embers in a cold schoolroom; feasting on sloes from the hedges and on haws; the chestnut skins she'd throw in the fire, to her mother's chagrin, for they'd later spoil the ash lye spread over the bucking cloth on the laundry tub, and stain the linen. Autumn was always her favourite season, and it became mine too once I had seen Burgundy. It was just as she'd promised: the last peaches, the triangular beechnuts, and the red leaves of the cherry trees quivering in the November dawn.

But this late autumn at the front is unlike any I have witnessed. Without the changing palette of the trees to signal the shift towards winter (the leaves have been exploded off), and the songbirds mostly gone quiet, it becomes difficult to know where I am, in what season, in which century. Between my trench and the foremost trenches of the Germans, there is no living thing except rats anymore. Instead there is an ocean of mud, liquid enough that when the wind blows it forms ripples on the surface of the largest shell craters; pools deep enough to drown a man. Paris and its millennial amusements must have been a mirage, for how could that have led to this?

Neighbours

The tom returned when the sun was eking out a cold light. The soldiers had just stood down from their dawn stand-to-arms on the firestep, shooting off their 'morning hate', as the ritual of firing into the early mists – the Germans do the same – is called. Worn out from anticipating the tom's return in the night, I was no longer prepared, half dozing on my own parapet. The soldiers were wrapping and rewrapping their rotting feet before gingerly fitting on their boots. They had cleaned their rifles, and the senior officers had inspected them, and it was time for the breakfast truce, during which each side (on good days) let the other eat in peace.

One of the soldiers – very thin, very young – offered me some of his condensed-milk ration, and I stuck my nose up at it in worst pussycat fashion because I couldn't bear to take from him his small chance at nourishment. But he looked so dismayed that I climbed down, lapped it up, and thanked him with a guttural purr and a nudge of my head against his legs.

It was then that the tomcat's outline appeared against the grey sky and I knew I'd lost my chance to surprise him in a show of dominance. I would have to change tactics.

'Careful, little one,' the soldier whispered, looking up. 'You've got company.'

As nonchalantly as I could, I climbed back up the side of the trench and out onto the parapet. Some of the other soldiers stopped their morning task of repairing duckboards to watch, whistling and joking about a love match between two cats equally dimwitted enough to expose themselves to German snipers in daylight.

The tomcat looked at me. 'Kiki?' he said. 'Kiki-la-Doucette?'

I didn't recognise him. I said nothing, licking my paws.

'It's really you, isn't it?' he said. 'I don't believe this. I'm sharing a trench with the famous Kiki-la-Doucette!'

'I'm giving you fifteen seconds to clear out,' I said. 'Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen —'

'You don't remember me? I live down the road from you in Paris. My owner started walking me on a leash after she saw Colette walking you, to my great embarrassment. We came once to your apartment for a salon of sorts, and I'll never forget my first sight of Missy, wearing that tuxedo adjusted to fit her womanly shape. There was a strange musician playing other worldly notes on the piano, someone called Ravel. Colette's bulldog took an instant dislike to me, so we didn't stay long, but you and I shared a bowl of milk and I was so awed by being in your presence that I couldn't say a word.'

'Twelve, eleven, ten —' I kept up my count rather brutally, for I did remember, suddenly, that shared bowl of milk.

'My owner was in love with Colette, you see. She always watched for her at the window, and read her newspaper columns out loud to me, or the nasty reviews of her latest music-hall performance – there was one where she took on the persona of a cat, I remember, with whiskers and a black nose.'

I was over whelmed with such longing that I forgot to keep my countdown going. She'd developed her mime for the title role in The Loved-up Cat at Le Bataclan by observing me even more closely than usual, crawling around on the floor after me, copying my every move and twitch and affectation. She didn't have to try very hard to be catty; her young friend Jean Cocteau has the knack of seeing through her niceties and he likes to warn new acquaintances, whoever is her friend du jour: 'Her velvet paw shows its claws very fast. And when she scratches, she leaves a gash.' They usually don't believe him until it's too late, until they are bleeding.

Toby-Chien the bulldog didn't mind all the attention Colette paid me. He was used to playing second fiddle; it was always clear that in her hierarchy of loves, cats came above dogs, and any four-legged creature came above those of the two-legged variety, even dear Missy. You wouldn't think it, but I could always count on Toby-Chien for a good chat when I felt like one. Colette would observe us wryly from the kitchen table with her cigarette poised, and that's where she got the idea for her Animals in Dialogue columns which she published in La Vie Parisienne, imagining what Toby-Chien and I were talking about, though in that she was often wrong. We didn't care much about the scandal of her open-mouthed kiss with Missy – whose stage name was Yssim – on the stage at the Moulin Rouge, and we'd never liked her ex-husband Willy, and once he was gone from our lives we didn't talk much about him. But these were the things she knew that Paris was preoccupied with, and Colette, just finding her feet as a stage presence and an author, never missed an opportunity to give Paris what it desired.

'My owner hated Missy with a passion,' the tomcat was saying. 'Called her mutton dressed up as lamb, though it wasn't her age that Missy was trying to disguise. She thought Missy looked ridiculous in those baggy men's clothes with that thin moustache pencilled above her top lip. My owner believed she could give Colette what she really wanted, a woman's gentle love, unsullied by any pretence at masculinity; a mother and lover all in one. Isn't that what Colette is searching for, somebody to love her as consumingly as her mother?'

I thought of our apartment on the rue de Villejust, where she and Toby-Chien and I lived after her divorce from Willy, until she got married again, to the despicable Henri. Missy lived half a block away in an apartment where she turned out bathroom fixtures on a lathe and held Sapphic salons for ladies who came dressed as men and stood around drinking expensive wine and smoking cigars. Missy made a pair of moustaches from hair plucked from her poodle's tail for herself and Colette, and sometimes they wore matching pince-nez, white trousers, black jackets made from alpaca wool, and several pairs of socks to fill up men's shoes. A regular game for members of the salon, initiated by Colette, was to think up imaginary titles of books that one of the women who worked at the Bibliothèque nationale would make sure after-wards to insert surreptitiously into the official catalogue. The ones Colette came up with usually had me in mind; my favourite was Diary of a Pussy in Mourning: Kiki-la-Doucette on Breaking Her Long Animal Silence.

The soldiers in the trench beneath had lost interest and turned back to their tasks. I felt I owed it to them to enliven their morning, and the tomcat's knowledge of intimate details of Colette and Missy's life together had made me angry. Without warning, I leapt forward and hissed at him, swiping at his face with one of my paws and grazing his nose. The soldiers looked up, and laughed.

The tomcat backed off and stared at me forlornly. 'Why did you do that, Kiki?'

'Because I felt like it,' I said. 'If you knew anything about her, you'd know that she and Missy are no longer together. She's remarried now. Her mother is dead. And Colette has her very own baby daughter, Bel-Gazou. Now piss off.'

To my surprise, he did, disappearing into his trench, forgoing the weak sunlight.

I have been lying up here on the parapet and moping since then, trying, and mostly succeeding, to ignore the whine and thunder of the shells the Germans send occasionally across the mud towards us. I pine for Colette and, the truth is, I miss Missy. The tomcat is right. I always knew Colette would leave her eventually. Why she then picked the sergeant, who is drawn to the masculine space of politics and warmongering in an increasingly exclusionary manner, I don't understand. But Colette is not always transparent to me emotionally, just as my needs are sometimes opaque to her.

ISBN: 9781926428581
ISBN-10: 1926428587
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Published: 23rd April 2014
Dimensions (cm): 23.1 x 15.3  x 1.9
Weight (kg): 23.1