J.M. Coetzee’s new novella, The Lives of Animals, must be some kind of first. Usually when a work of fiction comes to us wrapped inside critical essays like a knife inside cardboard, the work has been published many times and the author is long dead. But here is a novella surrounded, in its first edition, with essays written by prominent academics. A literary critic, a primatologist, a historian of religion and a theoretician of animal rights have all been called in to figure out what Coetzee is up to.
If Coetzee, the South African novelist whose best and best-known book may be Waiting for the Barbarians, were an animal, he would be a fox–quick, aloof and crafty. In 1997 Coetzee was invited by the Princeton University Center for Human Values to give a pair of lectures. Instead of doing so, he presented his audience with a novella about a famous novelist who is invited to speak at a prestigious American college. Rather than discuss literature, the fictional novelist–an Australian woman named Elizabeth Costello–lectures her audience on the importance of animal rights, the moral necessity of vegetarianism. Costello’s audience is, as Coetzee’s was, a bit surprised. But while Costello is all over the place–here eloquent and astute, there slack in her reasoning and a bit hysterical–Coetzee is nowhere to be found. He sets the scene and retreats from it, and when, over an awkward dinner at the Faculty Club–only three people dare to order the fish–Costello defends her vegetarianism in strong terms and things threaten to turn acrimonious, we have little idea of where Coetzee’s own sympathies lie.
For all the metafictional high jinks, the self-reflexive character, of Coetzee’s story, there is no postmodern playfulness to it. The few jokes are academic in-jokes. The Lives of Animals partakes of Coetzee’s usual clipped and somber moral seriousness, and in that sense, much as Coetzee may have surprised his audience, this book is of a piece with his others. Indeed, animal rights and ethical vegetarianism are natural subjects for him. The debate about them turns on questions of suffering, something to which Coetzee’s sensorium is pitched with particular keenness. The narrator of Waiting for the Barbarians tells us what any Coetzee narrator might, that his ear is “tuned to the pitch of human pain.” Coetzee’s prose is able to register physical pain, and the wrack of moral confusion, so acutely that we must sometimes set his slim books down. The chicken-killing scene in Age of Iron is enough to show us that his sympathy is not confined to human pain; and if the chief problem for animals, when it comes to suffering, is that they cannot ask for mercy, the inarticulateness of Coetzee’s damaged Michael K (of Life & Times of Michael K) is enough to show us that animals are not always alone in this.
Elizabeth Costello has, like Coetzee, pricked her ears up, she feels, to a sound that no one else hears. How else could the colossal suffering of animals–“what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world”–fail to evoke a universal outrage? It does not seem to her that the capacity to reason by itself confers rights on creatures, and, in any case, do we not teach experimental subjects the most cracked sort of reasoning? The subject ape is not encouraged to wonder, about his captor, “Why is he starving me?” but to think: “How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?”