What We Are Not
Mia Spence reviews Olivia Rosenthal’s To Leave with the Reindeer (trans. Sophie Lewis)
If art is a record of human experience, then human experience has been, from the earliest times, inflected through humankind’s relationship to animals. The Palaeolithic people who painted the walls of the caves at Lascaux did not depict themselves outside the company of beasts. They conceived of themselves, and their place in the world, in relation to the bison, the wild horse, the giant deer. The identified as something other than these creatures, and yet they were reliant upon them. Their art records an experience in which their sense of humanity is shaped by the human stance towards animal life: by distinctiveness, combined with dependency. Jump ahead a few millennia and the picture is very different, with human-animal relationships governed by a third ‘d’ named in the Book of Genesis — dominion — but the principle is the same as the one that guided the brushstrokes at Lascaux. Who are we? We are who we are because animals remind us of what we are not.
In Olivia Rosenthal’s To Leave with the Reindeer (trans. Sophie Lewis), the first of the French author’s many books to appear in English, the human-animal relationship is given a new, challenging twist. Rosenthal’s narrator is an aloof woman looking back on her youth, haunted by her troubled relationship with her mother. Although she reveals many intimate facts of her upbringing, she depersonalises the entire account by speaking of herself exclusively in the second person voice. “You don’t know if you like animals”, she begins, describing her infant years,
but you’re desperate to have one, you want a creature. This is one of the first indications of your desire, a desire that’s all the fiercer for remaining unfulfilled.
And she depersonalises her narrative further by opening it up to the animal presence she was denied as a child. This is a narrative of identity formation, apparently a bildungsroman, in which the narrator comes to know herself through animals and therefore as an animal: she is who she is because animals reminder her of what she is not — but what she is not is a human being in the same sense as the people around her. What if a human experience were to be defined by an inversion of the principles at work in Lascaux, in Genesis? What if a woman were to articulate her identity by emphasising her concordance with animal life — by feeling, at every turn, her distance from the rest of humankind — and by seeing herself as a wild creature subject to domestication by the adults who dominate her? At first, reflecting on her childhood, the narrator suggests that her situation in life stemmed from having to make a choice between two mutually exclusive recipients of her sympathy:
You love animals and you also love your mother. However, your mother does not love animals. You ask her why, why doesn’t she love animals, everyone loves them, why isn’t she like everyone else, you would like her, your mother, to be like everyone else, for her to look after tiny birds fallen from their nests, for her to teach them to fly, for her to rescue dogs abandoned in the woods, to feed wandering cats, to pick up hedgehogs and badgers on the roads, to bottle-feed fawns whose parents have been killed in the hunt, but your mother does not see things in the same light, she has enough to do for her own children without taking on the rest of the world’s suffering, and if she did all of that, she wouldn’t be your mother, the one you love more than anything in spite of her indifference to animals, she doesn’t seem troubled by your demands, her confidence is such that you think she must be right: you love animals but you prefer your mother.
But as the narrator grows up, and grows into self-awareness, she sees more clearly that this last truth is one of many imposed on her from above — and all of them are tantamount to the bars of a cage:
You do not attempt to leave the territory. Since learning to walk, you submit to your parents’ wishes almost without complaint, you are unusually docile, unusually gentle, unusually affectionate, yet your pathological insistence that they procure the presence of a pet at your side goes on. Your parents refuse point-blank. You decide, in your own way, to defy them.
The result is a clash of wills, with occasional destructive outbursts, as the narrator hungers for the freedom that she imagines is the privilege of animals alone: “The animals feel absent. They’re so far away. They’re on the other side. They’re behind. They’re beyond. After. Towards. Over by. Where? Where are they?” And if there’s a certain naïveté to the narrator’s overriding desire to be as the animals are, the title of the book indicates her awareness of it. “You try to think of questions your parents won’t be able to answer and which will force them to let you experience the world for yourself”, she says. “One of these questions recurs over and over, eating at you. Where do the reindeer go after Christmas?” As the narrator imagines the reindeer “racing through the snow [on] their flight towards the legendary East and their disappearance into the Siberian tundra”, she dreams of going with them, dreams of it more and more, fleeing to freedom, making an escape — until she learns the truth about them, their fanciful existence. Then she sees the lie as a double betrayal of her urge to live the animal life. To have such freedom valorised and then nullified is worse than to simply have it proscribed, and her culture bears as much responsibility for her confinement as her parents do. How, then, can she now tell her story in a way that speaks truly of her urges, while also remaining true to the curtailing of her cry for liberation?
Rosenthal’s solution is to keep the narrator’s second-person prose as clipped as possible, cold and fragmentary, and to intercut it with dozens of more free-flowing, first-person monologues on the subject of animal husbandry. The text on the back cover of To Leave with the Reindeer describes these monologues as “the testimonies of vets, scientists, and zookeepers”, implying that they come from real professionals, though none of them are presented as such in the pages of the book, nor are they attributed to anyone in particular. Balancing out the conflict between the narrator and her parents — matching each beat in her story with an anecdote from someone else — these monologues often include bold, declarative statements on animal behaviour which illuminate the emotional substrata of the narrator’s conduct. One chapter, for instance, begins with this discourse from an expert:
Imprinting consists of getting a wild animal used to a human presence as early as possible by hand-feeding it. The animal will take its feeder for its mother, it will fix on the image of the species which has raised it, and it will consider itself a human. If we then make it rejoin its fellow creatures, it will struggle to concede the similarity between itself and them and will consider them to be strangers or, worse, enemies.
And this passage is followed by another from the narrator:
You get used to leaving your bedroom unlocked, you don’t even feel the old desperation to lock the door. You recognise that your mother is your mother, and your father is your rival and enemy, you reproduce the patterns, you embed the functions, you are imprinting.
So it goes, throughout To Leave with the Reindeer. Sometimes the effect is unexpected and illuminating, sometimes only bewildering. Overall, though, the pace picks up and becomes more panicked — like an animal backed into a corner — as the first-person testimonies zero in on animals whose movements are increasingly restricted. The earliest testimonies describe wild animals making tentative contact with domesticity, at large in urban spaces. The scope of the later testimonies shrinks to describe animals in zoos, animals hunted, animals trapped, animals kept as pets, animals imprisoned in laboratories, and animals born and raised to be killed and consumed by people. By the end of the book, the narrator is in her forties, divorced, and questioning her sexuality in a series of restrained fragments that are among the best in the book; they depict societal attitudes towards homosexuality as walking a fine line between a deviation from human norms and a transgression of one’s own species. Finally, the sense of lifelong confinement becomes so acute for the narrator that she breaks down, snaps, if in her own disaffected way. She “discover[s] rage”, she says, and she submits to it. Hers is the rage of looking at others and then being looked at with suspicion, across the human-animal divide, and eventually it leads her to a form of violence: a devouring of animal flesh which comes across as a sort of self-abnegating cannibalism.
Maybe because its form is so strange, because the second-person voice and the professional testimonies maintain such distance between the narrator and her readers, it’s difficult to warm to a book like To Leave with the Reindeer. The narrator’s interior life is discernible, accessible, but not exactly open; readers will only see it in outline if they consciously work to connect the dots, every single step of the way, inferring her emotional state by reading in a staggered way — reading the subtext of the testimonies back into her descriptions of her behaviour. Up to a point, this is an exhilarating exercise, but the book’s adherence to this form is so unbending that, over time, it finally feels like a strategy for keeping readers at arm’s length. That’s not necessarily a criticism. If one thing about the narrator is certain, it’s that she has no patience for yielding to people, so a form that remains inhospitable to readers is at least coherent with her outlook. But…
But there’s also something else missing from To Leave with the Reindeer, which makes it just as difficult to meet the book halfway. This is the gap between the narrator’s detached demeanour and her sentimental view of animalia. On the one hand, her presentation of animals is sometimes as simplistic as in a bad work of Christian art, one of those paintings of a lion and lamb drenched in light from above. Her animal fantasies don’t admit much of the putridity of creaturely existence, outside of the debasement caused by humans. On the other hand, her detachment leads her to use animal suffering in a calculated, instrumental way, as a means of speaking for the suffering of people. Animals, here, often work indirectly to express the visceral needs and pains of human bodies, just as the function of Picasso’s howling horse in Guernica is to voice to the speechless distress of the villagers under attack. So why doesn’t the narrator let these two aspects of her work overlap? If there’s a visceral quality to her human interactions, especially as she explores her sexuality, and if animal behaviour is instrumental to her descriptions of people, why does she favour romanticism when she tries to see animals on their own terms? Why sanitise their lives? It doesn’t feel like a meaningful denial of their roughness; it just feels like a blind spot in the text.
Ultimately, then, To Leave with the Reindeer is an oddly unmoving experience. The anomie of its narrator’s voice, the clinical counterbalances of its form, and its habit of turning away from the worst of “the animal” — the cold, the muck, the hunger; parasites, misadventure, chance brutality — all conspire to make the book an object of distant regard. As a cerebral puzzle, it is entrancing, and from time to time it feels cutting-edge in its efforts to find a new perspective on the human-animal relationship beyond the three ‘d’s of distinctiveness, dependency, and dominion. As a work of art, however, it doesn’t quite feel holistic, or even animated, because it doesn’t take seriously its narrator’s own ideas about herself. That’s to say it doesn’t offer any hint as to why the narrator has turned to writing about her wishes, a supremely human endeavour, rather than committing to a different way life in order to truly seize her animal freedom. This hobbles the book, this stopping short, substituting in a wireframe model — though beautiful in its own attenuated way — for the form of a creature that ought to have a beating heart and spirit of its own.