Friday, 18 January 2019

No.75 Dogs in Southern African Literatures: A new book of essays

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece about dogs in some eighteenth-century South African art and travelogue (Blog no.19). The dog theme has bubbled and steamed along since. Piggy-backing on Wendy Woodward’s highly successful Animal Studies colloquia at the University of the Western Cape over the last few years, we cooked up a conference on dogs in Southern African literatures. The organisation of this was bravely taken on by Andries Visagie and Joan-Mari Barendse, and efficiently carried off at Stellenbosch University in April 2017.

Finally, we have worked up a fascinating special edition of the journal Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (55.3), published also as a book by van Schaik Publishers, edited by myself and Joan-Mari.  Nothing quite like this has been done in South Africa before – nor, indeed, for the literary presence of any other animal in South Africa. We have fond hopes of setting a trend.

After a Foreword by prominent American dogs-scholar Karla Armbruster from Webster University, who delivered the conference’s keynote lecture, the volume looks like this:

The collection opens with an essay by Cape Town artist Wilma Cruise, one of whose sculptures adorns our cover. Cruise ruminates on her own art in relation to contemporary theory on animal communication, and communication with animals, including that which lies beyond spoken and written language.
Australian scholar Henrietta Mondry’s article startlingly levels J M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace against a Ukrainian-set documentary about an isolated dog-rescuer. Both texts are unsettling borderland narratives that question all kinds of former political and ethical assumptions and positions, and are linked by the mythological trope of the “Dog-man”.
            A second north-south comparison is offered by Catherine du Toit, whose article investigates parallels between Michel Houellebecq’s French-language novel, La Possibilité d’une île (2005) and Op ’n dag, ’n hond (2016) by John Miles. Du Toit also takes us back to the millennia-old trope of the dog as guide.
            Wendy Woodward’s contribution treats of a genre too much neglected: lyric poetry. She dips into what is doubtless an extensive archive of dog-related poetry, showing how human-canine entanglements, both convivial and adversarial, manifest in the works of poets ranging from Ruth Miller to Mongane Serote.
            A number of articles treat of canid appearances—domestic dogs as well as wild hyenas and jackals—in Afrikaans literature in particular.  They explore facets of dog entanglements with Afrikaans identity itself, and range from the earliest works in self-identifying Afrikaans to the most recent. A useful ‘book-end’ is Willem Anker’s recent novel Buys, which re-imagines the peripatetic, morally challenging 1840s’ career of the maverick Coenraad de Buys. Anker (who attended the original conference himself) anchors the final section of Gerda Taljaart-Gilson’s article, which provides a useful survey of a range of Afrikaans works.  Most intriguingly, Gilson shows how these dog tropes owe as much to African as to European folkloric or mythic antecedents.
Jacomien van Niekerk, like Taljaart-Gilson, looks both to wild canids and to African —specifically Khoi—folklore as the origin of the Afrikaans jakkals and wolf (hyena) stories gathered and published by G. R. von Wielligh, and then circulated and re-told in numerous forms so as to become almost ineffably ‘Afrikaans’. 
Joan-Mari Barendse then analyses in intimate detail a single work, Oswald Pirow’s 1955 story, Ashambeni, one of the few works explored in this collection which is named for and centred on a dog-character. It is, importantly, a reminder that not all cross-cultural or cross-species imaginative ventures are intrinsically benign, inasmuch as Pirow depicts an African man’s story through a thoroughly offensive right-wing lens—an aspect of Afrikaner identity now for many uncomfortable to recall.
Even more discomfiting in this respect is the work of Eben Venter, whose novel Wolf, Wolf is examined by Wemar Strydom.  Strydom attends to conjunctions between racism, sexism and speciesism—in Venter’s case refracted through canine masks, games and actual animals.

Finally in this Afrikaans-related set, Bibi Burger takes us into the futuristic nightmares of Deon Meyer’s recent thriller Fever, in which dogs, especially a roaming and uncontrolled pack of dogs attack the protagonists; this attack provides an opening for Burger’s meditation on crucial contemporary debates about humans’ capacity and propensity to control nature (exemplified by the domestication of the dog) as opposed to recognising our more complex entanglement with its wildness.
Mathilda Slabbert focuses on two very recent short stories, one by Ken Barris, the other by Sally-Ann Murray. Both feature dogs strongly as metonymic of their human protagonists’ politics, gender conceptions, and senses of belonging in a divisive and racialised suburban South Africa, and symptomatic, in Slabbert’s view, of South Africa’s communal failure to address the needs of the vulnerable.
            A trio of essays takes us north of the Limpopo. Innocent Dande and Sandra Swart provide a wide-ranging survey of canine representations in Zimbabwean archival sources, popular media formats, and Shona-language literatures. They show how dog evocations in traditional and proverbial lore ramify complexly into the politics and literatures of unfolding phases of Zimbabwe’s conflicted history.
Pat Louw takes just one short story of the Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s extensive oeuvre, “A tale of two dogs”. Louw shows how the differing treatment of the dogs therein reflects tensions and flaws within Rhodesia’s colonial society, and argues that even in this early piece Lessing exhibits what might be termed a post-colonial stance.
Finally, I bring us into the contemporary period, examining two novels set in the turmoil of Zimbabwe’s post-2000 land acquisitions, Graham Lang’s Place of Birth and Ian Holding’s Unfeeling. This exploration exhumes the ever-present role of dogs on all sides of the farm takeovers, and argues for contextualising them within a more comprehensive multispecies history. Above all, dogs emerge here as victims.

Any exploratory collection like this one leaves many gaps and suggestions: many periods – the eighteenth century among them – and many regions need further attention. Namibia and Botswana’s dogs are conspicuous by their absence. So is the role of dogs in various of the subcontinent’s indigenous cultures’ literary productions. And surely there ought to have been a new postcolonial reading of Jock of the Bushveld? This remains for some adventurous scholar to do. Still, we think the collection offers some useful parameters and theoretical stances, and opens up numerous passages for further exploration and argument.

Hovering behind all this, of course, is the question: Why bother to study the literary role of animals at all? For me, it’s a sub-section of the study of animals’ role in our lives more broadly. Dogs are something of a special case, to the degree that they are our closest non-human companions through history – as predators, fellow-hunters, companions and symbols, appearing as bothersome strays and police co-oppressors, trackers of thieves and guides to the blind – and offering, of course, the closest we are likely to know of unconditional love.

What the cat thinks of dogs
But every species is a special case, each with unique properties and functions. Humans are just another unique animal case; indeed, the critic Jacques Derrida went so far as to call the conceptual division between “animals” and “humans” a crime. It is a crime because it has led to our unthinking and unabated destruction of perhaps 70 percent of all non-human species –  mammals, birds, fish and insects alike – with incalculable impacts on the sustaining ecosystems which depended upon those animals to be sustaining. Instead, we have replaced functioning ecosystems with grazing and housing for billions of captive animals bred solely for slaughter and consumption, bolstered by poisons and hormones, while giving absolutely nothing back.

So any initiative or study which helps raise consciousness of our current relationships with animals, both wonderful and damaging, can only be a good thing. You can help by spreading the news about this book, and carrying the work a little further.


1 comment:

  1. Some interesting insights and observations Dan.

    Yes I do agree with the validity of studying the literary role of animals. Your review of this particular book, apart from reference to Deon Meyer, does, however illuminate the work, in my deliberately chosen, non-scholarly opinion as rather dry and droll, and at the risk of sounding even more critical, highbrow and pretentious.

    If your intention is to open the world of animals in literature to thought, discussion and discourse, there are gaping holes that are even more conspicuous by their absence. And beg this question: Where are Tolkien, Lewis and, might I add, Rowling?

    I am convinced that an analysis or discussion of those 3 authors' presentation of 'animals in literature' would evoke a much more lively reaction than the sources of literature that you have chosen. And given the exponentially greater impact that those literary figures have had on culture than the literary figures presented in the book you have reviewed, another question demands to be asked. Why were they left out?

    Go gently...