Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey is a rich and wonderful collection of ten short stories told by the souls of animals who died in human conflicts around the world. Anthropomorphic animals as fodder for authors is as old as Aesop and many of the authors who appear in these stories have written from the perspective of animals, too. But there is something new and fresh in these stories.
Perhaps it is the structural framework that makes it so exciting. Each story has three elements in common, they are all told by the souls of self-aware animals who died in human conflicts and at least one great writer is part of the story one way or another. Within those limitations, Dovey demonstrates a limitless ability to imagine and to write.
They are all connected to literature, to Kafka, to Tolstoy, to Hesse. My favorite story was told by a mollusk whose pre-World War II adventures sounded like a bivalve Kerouac “On the Boat” told with hilarious gusto as he travels from the Hudson River to Pearl Harbor. “The whole goal was detachment, gathering no algae, freewheeling…we would talk all the time about how we would practice non-attachment while depending on our survival on attaching to a base with our byssus threads.” If you can read that story without laughing, you’ve never read On the Road.
Some of the stories take your heart and crush it. The story of the twin elephants who died in a civil war in Mozambique is magical, beautiful and heartbreaking. The US military-trained dolphin who writes a letter to Sylvia Plath broke my heart. Then, there’s the Zelig-like tortoise who goes from Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf to George Orwell (from whom he runs away) to the Soviet Space Program and whose placid wisdom is entrancing. There is Colette’s cat, accidentally left behind at the Front of World War who always felt she was a tom, not a she-cat or Goering’s German Shepherd whose Siddhartha-inspired self-mythology identifies with Fenris the Wolf of Norse mythology. They inhabit, in a way, their writers as well as their animal nature.
Why these stories succeed so well as these animals who are self-aware, who are well-read and oh-so-literate also remain animals. Their animal nature remains true, except perhaps for the chimpanzee, our genetic cousin, who is trying to become human.
Dovey skillfully adapts her writing style to the different animals and authors. From beat poet to ancient fable, the writing styles vary widely, but feel so very authentic for each animal narrator. She also explores the different reasons people will write from the animal perspective, whether to ask what it means to be human, to show that we too are merely animals, or to say the unsayable, the unthinkable by putting those words in the mouths of animals.
I enjoyed this book very much. It made me laugh. More often it made me sad, sometimes it even made me cry for these animals we use and risk and exploit in our wars, whose lives we value so much and then so little whether it’s pampering them as pets and abandoning them in crisis or spending years and small fortunes training them only to send them to their deaths. Our relationship with animals reveals so much about us and these stories, told by animals killed in our wars are telling us truths we might not want to hear. We should listen.