ABR Reviewing Competition

Winner of the 2009 ABR Reviewing Competition

Only in America

Kathleen Steele

Roger’s World: Toward a New Understanding of Animals

by Charles Siebert

Scribe Publications

$29.95 pb, 224 pp, 9781921372865

Ostensibly, Roger’s World is an account of Charles Siebert’s whistle-stop tour of primate retirement homes in America. By the author’s reckoning, there are approximately two to three thousand chimpanzees in America, as well as a substantial number of their primate cousins. He travels across the country, visiting captive chimpanzees on an ‘impromptu farewell tour of our own kidnapped and caged primal selves’, until he encounters Roger, with whom he feels a profound connection.

If one is inclined to accept the disturbing idea of retirement homes for chimpanzees as only possible in America, Siebert’s final night with Roger, at the Center for Great Apes, in Wauchope, Florida, forces a reassessment of such easy presumptions. The hours of silence between man and ape lead to an exploration of the broader context of humanity’s relationship with animals. Siebert laments a wildlife ‘endgame’ in which he insists hundreds of animals are damaged and diseased in the name of research, and entire species exposed to nervous distress due to human activities. This leads him to the discomfiting conclusion that if we ever figure out how to talk to the animals, there may be none (bar those we have already captured and irreparably damaged) left to answer.

The latent damage caused by human–animal interactions is brought home during the nocturnal stare-downs between Roger and Siebert, in which Siebert contemplates Maurice Temerlin’s book Lucy: Growing Up Human (1976), a harrowing account of Temerlin’s ‘psycho-anthropological’ experiment to raise Lucy, the chimpanzee, as a human child. Lucy lived in the Temerlin home as part of the family. She learnt sign-language, raised a pet cat and entertained visitors. After living with the Temerlins for ten years, Lucy’s ‘parents’ decided to release her into the wild. They spent three days with her at a holding compound in Africa before returning to America. Fortunately their babysitter, Janis Carter, took it upon herself to stay for the six years it took Lucy to adapt to life in the wild. A photograph of Carter’s reunion with Lucy six months after she left her to fend for herself is an extremely distressing image. Lucy’s breeder said her release was the ‘most cruel damn thing that could have been done’. One can only agree wholeheartedly and hope that similar experiments will never be permitted again.

Siebert’s subtle meanderings between Roger’s and Lucy’s stories help throw the twin potentialities of destruction and recuperation within the human empathetic impulse into sharp relief. While the Temerlins’ abandonment of Lucy was unquestionably reprehensible, Carter had no way of knowing if her actions were ultimately helpful or harmful. Nor can Siebert, as he holds Roger’s gaze, be sure how his actions will affect Roger. He hesitates to offer Roger’s hand, as doing so could have dire consequences for the emotionally damaged chimpanzee, yet in spite of his reservations he does finally reach out and touch Roger. The result is positive, but Siebert had no way of knowing such before making the gesture.

Woven throughout Siebert’s seamless digressions about human–animal relationships is a broader evolution–Creation debate, in which Siebert displays particular prejudice against Creationists and individuals who continue to breed and use chimpanzees for entertainment purposes. His encounters with both groups are peppered with words like ‘scary’, ‘suspicious’, and ‘nefarious’, and he asserts: ‘the exotic-animals trade is, by and large, licensed and legal, and, like the right to bear arms in the United States, just as staunchly defended.’

Siebert’s passion is admirable, and he offers excellent insights into the blinkering effect of entrenched language choices, but while one can understand his frustration with people who enjoy all of the benefits of science yet deny one of its foundation theories, it is harder to sympathise with his negative opinion of the breeders he encounters in his travels. No doubt there are ignorant and ‘nefarious’ breeders, but the ones he interviews appear to care deeply for their chimpanzees. His use of negative language and his alignment of exotic animal breeders with groups that provoke emotive reactions introduce a discordant note into an otherwise effortless style.

Roger’s World is enjoyable, and contains some fascinating asides into ‘humanzee’ lore and the strange history of animal trials in human courts of law. It is not, however, a feel-good account of human largesse toward animals that have outlived their usefulness. Current social and economic problems make it easy to overlook the many animals that are voiceless victims of increased consumption and inequality; victims with ‘minds enough to lose and histories that can only hasten the process’. Siebert’s timely narrative suggests that it is time for deeper consideration of our relationship to animals; time perhaps, to reappraise the gap between our ethical and moral obligations to animals and our actions.

Kathleen Steele lives in Sydney and has recently undertaken a Creative PhD with a focus on Australian Literature at Macquarie University. Her work has been published in Zinewest 2008 and Skive, and online at The Australian Ejournal of Theology and Southern Ocean Review.

Second place in the 2009 ABR Reviewing Competition

Ransoming humanity

John Clanchy

Ransom

by David Malouf

Knopf

$29.95 hb, 224 pp, 97817416683

In 1939, with the invasion of Paris imminent, the French writer and activist Simone Weil fled to the South. Among the papers and notebooks she took with her was an as-yet-unpublished essay, L’Iliade ou le Poème de la Force. Understandably, Weil read Homer’s martial epic through the prism of her own circumstances and time, seeing in the imminent sack of Troy, and the wholesale slaughter and enslavement of its population, a prophetic metaphor for what was about to engulf her native city and Europe. ‘The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad,’ she wrote, ‘is force.’

Weil is right. The Iliad is the ultimate poem of ‘force’, of violence and its celebration. Each of the twenty-four books of the poem is steeped in a violence of the bloodiest and most anatomically precise kind. Swords cleave brains, genitals are hacked, buttocks pierced with arrows. A Trojan charioteer is ‘fished’ out over the rail of his chariot on the end of a spear which has been driven through his right jawbone, its blunt flanges locking behind his teeth. Yet Weil’s essay is also only partly right, her Iliad missing both ‘the wild joy … of archaic warfare’ (George Steiner) and the countervailing Homeric values of honour, piety, compassion and right conduct.

Not so Ransom, David Malouf’s brilliant recent reprise of this ancient tale. Malouf holds the crucial balance between elements fundamental to the Homeric world: ecstatic violence, the proper celebration of martial honour, and the sacred bonds to gods and to family. In Part One, for example, Malouf presents a scene of hubristic bestiality in which an insane Achilles drags the butchered corpse of Hector, Troy’s defender, behind his chariot, while Priam and Hecuba look down from the ramparts wailing at the dishonour being done to their son’s body. In Part Two, Malouf sets against this a scene of great tenderness, even domesticity, between Priam and Hecuba, Priam’s queen and lifelong companion, as they discuss ways to ransom Hector’s body, their fears for their city, for their family and for the savage, separate fates which they know lie ahead for each of them.

Malouf reads both sides of this ancient coin. Achilles, he demonstrates, also acts from within a hell of his own, caught in a self-consuming rage so deep and blind that no gesture of revenge, no act of despoliation heaped on Hector’s corpse, can be enough to expunge his own suffering (this over the death of Patroclus, his lifelong companion). In fact only one agent can set him free from this spell of mad despair – and that, in Malouf’s dramatic irony, is Priam himself, his sworn enemy. It is Priam, of all people, who opens up for Achilles the possibility of recovering his lost humanity.

Malouf has Priam coming by night to the Achean camp, accompanied by a humble carter, to beg for the return of his son’s body. His plea is couched in the simplest and most affecting terms. First, he reminds Achilles of his own son, Neoptolemus, growing up fatherless in far-off Scyros and then begs him ‘as a father, and as one poor mortal to another – to accept the ransom I bring and give me back the body of my son’. In adopting such common, unkingly language, Priam reveals the double irony that Malouf has been playing with all along: the fact that Priam himself, by this act of supplication, has been freed from the iron shackles of royal stasis. In the risk he has taken, in opening his life up to Chance through this act of submission to a hated enemy, Priam ransoms his own cramped humanity.

Malouf’s novel is studded with these inventive and elaborate ironies, conveyed in a language that is by turns lyrical, sinewy, and glitteringly simple and moving. Nowhere is this more evident than in the climatic scene, in which Priam appears in the smoky darkness of the Greek hut where Achilles is seated at table. In Malouf’s thrilling (Shakespearean) inversion, Achilles looks up and sees not Priam but his own father, Peleus:

‘Father,’ he says again, aloud this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty. ‘Peleus! Father!’ great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe.

The illusion doesn’t last, of course, but it has done its work. The identification is so strong – the paternal-filial bond so powerfully invoked – that Achilles must answer to it, and grant Priam’s wish.

According to his afterword, David Malouf has taken nearly sixty years to find the way to write this minor miracle of a novel. We should be grateful for the brief intermission. Every page has been worth the wait.

See also Peter Rose’s review of Ransom, which appeared in the May 2009 edition, in ABR's online archive: HERE

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