As every man and his dog knows, stories with animals in them are not, on the whole, about animals. They are stories written by humans who are ashamed/afraid/incapable of presenting ideas without first hiding them under the skin of a fluffy bunny. Bring forth the bunnies and everything seems a little bit easier; safely removed one step from reality, hard edges softened by the simplest of literary tricks. There is, of course, a word for this – a word so closely associated (in my mind anyway) with proud young students of literature that I feel disinclined to use it here. So disinclined, in fact, that I feel myself resisting the urge entirely. See how I resist, oh see how I resist.
Let us move on with sweet speed, stopping only briefly to consider the case of Pierre Manniac, a man who, you may remember, turned this tradition of which I speak on its furry little head. His ultra-violent story of gangland murders, Death: A Way of Life, would have been a generic shoot-em-up were it not for one fact: Manniac decided to replace all his humans with animals. Suddenly everything became strangely interesting (according to some: personally, I remain unconvinced). Readers who might have been bored stiff by an account of a bloody fistfight between two brainless gangsters were, it seems, beguiled by a reenactment of the same scuffle featuring a polar bear and a giant lobster. The animals, somehow, made the story.
Manniac’s path to anthropomorphism (resistance duly over) wasn’t the usual one, granted. It was, in fact, a last-minute get-out clause, if not a lucky mistake. Others might have got there quicker. Some people, indeed, struggle to get anywhere else. For animals dominate the stories of amateur storytellers. Folk tales are swimming with them. And many of the worst are – like Manniac’s novel – saved by them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s hard to write a bad story with a talking goat in it. Or at least, harder than writing a bad story with a talking bank manager in it – even if the plot is, essentially, the same.
Boris Yashmilye is not an amateur storyteller – not by any means – but The Bastard nevertheless hands a lot of pages over to amateur storytelling; to join-the-dots narrative construction; to wax-crayon on sugar-paper plot prefabrication. This after all, as Yashmilye well knows, is what happens when one tries to create a story out of correspondence with people who, to put it simply, both lack the true writer’s touch and, most significantly, see some kind of need to hide their true (and possibly cruel) intentions behind cartoonish, distinctly non-human characters. What is true to Yashmilye’s experience is undoubtedly true to mine: get a group of perfectly sane people together to weave a story and there’s every chance that what they’ll come up with will feature, somewhere along the way, a cute-faced kitten with a hidden agenda.
Admittedly, there are no kittens in The Bastard. Still, there are some pretty fine substitutes, well poised to make up for this oversight. There is, as previously noted, a pelican or two, a ship of parrot pirates (with small men on their shoulders) and at least one talking potato. On top of this we have what is for me a first in modern European fiction: a ‘sqirl’ (a small female squirrel). Oh dear me yes. Sqirls there are in abundance. Sqirls everywhere. And I dare to say that I actually like this novel!
So it is. For the sqirls, at least, are not without their uses. Indeed, I would even so far as to call them a masterstroke. Awful as they are, their awfulness is not without a certain beauty; a certain calculated beauty, I should say, testament to Yashmilye’s understanding of what The Bastard is all about. And here, again, the footnotes save the day, alerting the dazed reader to the curious set of circumstances that surround the invention of – and consequently save the copious employment of – these tragically adorable creatures. Yasmilye’s brilliantly weighted interjections not only excuse the sqirls, but they make them integral to the project: pathetically heroic symbols of the novel’s central themes.
But be warned: a sqirl in the hands of a less talented writer is a very different sort of animal.