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Tobias Revell
Tobias Revell

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Click image to buy from Foyles
Click image to buy from Foyles
Click image to buy from Foyles
Foyles Curates: The Humanized Inhuman in Literature


 

I recently saw the film Teenwolf for the first time, with a friend who billed it as one of the greatest artistic endeavours of the eighties. ‘So, let me get this straight,’ I queried when it was over, ‘Michael J Fox is the popular guy at school, head of the basketball team, gets all the girls and... he’s a werewolf? And everyone’s just fine with this?’ My alarm at the absurdity of this premise may have been quelled somewhat, had I, at the time, been aware of the literary history of the humanised inhuman.
          Perhaps one of the most well known texts to harness the device to great effect is Animal Farm. Orwell effortlessly satirizes socialist structures through his tale of a farmyard coup, and, in doing so, sets the precedent for a now well-worn brand of political analogy. To the best of my knowledge, only one other work succeeds so well in this sort of animalistic parody. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of A Dog, written in 1925 though unpublished until 1968, is both whimsical in its humor and profound in its thoughtfulness. A doctor inserts the glands and genitals of a petty criminal into the body of a stray dog and in doing so creates the perfect Communist, a formula Orwell would probably have appreciated had he been around to read it.
          Paul Auster’s Timbuktu also features man’s best friend as its protagonist, but the story here is much bleaker, as Mr. Bones struggles with the death of his beloved (if rather uncouth) master, and adapts to a dog’s life in a ‘normal’ family. The novella brings canine considerations to a two-legged audience brilliantly, and the end of the text breaks the human heart as if Mr. Bones was one of our own.
          Quite apart from this sort of faithful and consistent narrative perspective, the narrator of Alessandro Boffa’s hilarious You’re an Animal, Viskovitz! is a veritable chameleon. In a desperate quest for sex and his place in the universe, Viskovitz journeys through the karmic afterlife, ultimately, and ironically, finding redemption in an amoebic lifestyle. Darker and even more fantastical is China Mieville’s King Rat, which entwines famous anthropomorphized characters, including the folkloric Anansi and Max Ernst’s Loplop. This is a dramatic tale where the myth meets the man.
          Equally fantastically, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams have all earned well-deserved reputations for welcoming the very human sound of laughter into otherworldly realms. It may be, however, that Italo Calvino’s recently re-published Cosmicomics does it best. Swept along the entirety of existence looking for love and one-upmanship over his rivals, the ephemeral hero of the tale, Qfwq, gets involved in all manner of mischief and misadventure on the way: playing marbles with the fundamental particles; bickering over space in the singularity before the Big Bang; betting on evolution; and becoming seriously neurotic over a mysterious message written on sign in a neighbouring galaxy.
          Even more surreal, perhaps, is Raymond Queneau’s The Flight of Icarus, in which a number of well-known characters escape from their novels and find other occupations, while their authors squabble over their lost creations. The concept may not be entirely original, but it’s the characteristic humour and rascality of Queneau’s method that makes it so wonderful; writing alternately in the form of a novel and a script, for instance, to break down the sense of regular narrative.
          Last, but by no means least (and definitely not lengthiest) is Jorge Luis Borges’s incredible short story ‘The House of Asterion’ (available in the Penguin Modern Classics collection, The Aleph). The tale begins cryptically, constructing the image of a sad, lonely individual, lacking in self-perception and perhaps suffering from madness, playing games with his reflection to fill the time in the dark, solitary labyrinth that is his home. As the tragedy of the final revelation forces its way into our hearts, we may experience a stab of pity for the inhuman characters of myth and literature, doomed time and again to be mistaken for monsters.

 


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