A Captivity That is Both Delightful and Decisive

Olivia Rosenthal, trans. Sophie Lewis, To Leave with the Reindeer

And Other Stories, 192pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781911508427

reviewed by Tony Messenger

In the era of instant social media attention, activism has reached new levels of prominence, with animal activism in particular finding increasing acceptance among the broader public. Groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), with over 6.5 million members worldwide, use shock tactics to garner support and further debate. But animal activism has yet to appear as an overarching theme in mainstream literature.

Enter Olivia Rosenthal’s first novel to appear in English, To Leave with the Reindeer (translated by Sophie Lewis). A hybrid text blending testimonies from zookeepers, scientists, veterinarians, farmers and abattoir workers with a fictional account of a woman’s development from childhood, this work explores human interactions with creatures. The novel proceeds via alternating paragraphs of first-person testimony and a second-person perspective on a girl’s coming of age and search for independence.

‘I am someone who’s always had a good connection with animals, a kind of immediate instinct for animal feeling, and besides, I was very interested in natural science, and how we understand life, so I chose to study biology, I’ve taken a classic path.’

Readers will question their views of of how we understand life as Olivia Rosenthal pairs four areas of human-animal interaction with four stages of human development: in part one, the taming of wild animals and childhood development; in part two, interactions with animals in zoos and adolescence; in part three, vivisection and the changes undergone at university; and finally, agribusiness and slaughterhouses are compared with marriage and independence. This subtle juxtaposition of themes forces readers to question their belief systems, their ideas of education, the ways they domesticate their offspring:

‘Having no claim upsets you, you’re very angry at your parents, little by little you are distancing yourself from them, the absence of any pet allows you temporarily to cancel your belonging: for the moment, you no longer belong to your parents. . .’

‘A certified competent handler’s role is to educate their young, to manage this without upsetting or mistreating them. In short to establish their wolves in a captivity that is both delightful and decisive, knowing also that they will be making a living out of their captives.’

Questions about childrearing lead back to the place of animals in human life, and the ethical quandaries surrounding livestock, zoo animals, and pets. Are we imprinting a human behavioural system on a wild animal? In Rosenthal’s book, questions of this kind arise more by implication than overtly in the back-and-forth between the two narrative lines, slowly casting doubt on the logic of speciesism. Her illumination of the independent lives of animals — their ‘Time-Relevant Interest’, to cite ethicist Jeff McMahan — eludes the heavy-handed approach of radical animal-rights activism, preferring a detached and descriptive attitude that illuminates the nuances involved in animal husbandry.

The text’s diffuseness allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the connections between its assorted threads. The fact-based, almost blank style contrasts with the emotional, at times passionate second-person sections, which are nuanced and suggestive, if at times overly ambiguous.

‘Every time a new King Kong comes out, the special effects do more, so that the creature, reduced to a puppet in the earlier films, gains in psychological complexity with every remake. As the real animals disappear, the cinema offers us ever more ambitious, moving and almost human substitutes. The gorilla’s humanity is the sign of it dying out.’

This sidelong invocation of prominent ethical debates permits, or begs, readers to draw their own conclusions. While this openness may be praiseworthy, it also imbues the text with a slightly soggy indecision, as if a pensiveness sufficed to fill in for the philosophical rigor many of the questions broached here demand:

‘The word euthanasia appears repeatedly in texts on the use of animals. Yet, while its etymology suggests gentle death, it is more often applied, in current usage, to the act of provoking death in those desperate to put an end to their intolerable physical suffering. Although they don’t expressly wish for it, animals may benefit from euthanasia. On the other hand, even if they express a keen wish for it, people are never accorded the right to such a treatment. Offering one’s opinion therefore does no good at all, so it’s better, as animals do, to stay dumb. To ensure zero confusion over the line between humans and animals, we are subject to horrifying inconsistencies.’

One of last year’s controversial environmental novels, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, elicited debate on the role of trees in human neuroscience. To the extent that we can speak of “environmental literature” as a genre or a genre soon-to-be –– one opposed to environmentalist literature or the usual apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions about biotechnology and the end of nature — Olivia Rosenthal has made a special contribution to it, examining the not always obvious parallels between education, parenting, domestic mores, the place of pets, zoos, animal testing, meat-eating, and intensive farming. Some will find it a bit radical, but the author will not be to blame — her views are more suggested than thrown in the reader’s face, and her approach is cool rather than histrionic.

Translator Sophie Lewis has managed to capture the multiple registers of the text — poetic and factual, intimate and clinical — and give heft to the author’s account of a raft of human experiences, from shattered childhood dreams — among them the child’s longing to ‘leave with the reindeer’ that appear on Christmas Eve — to the development of love, dependence and independence. All of these, in one way or another, are viewed against the backdrop of a broader nature of which human life is only a part.

Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer whose work has appeared in Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Burning House Press and Concrescence Online. His short story, ‘Fournel’s Bouquet’, won the Open Prize at the Jugiong Writer’s Festival in 2019. He can be found on Twitter @messy_tony.