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Elephants on Parade

Koko, a buxom, 27-year-old female gorilla in the San Francisco Zoo, "speaks" American Sign Language. With a vocabulary of about a thousand signs, Koko can convey that she has a taste for apple juice and wants a dog to play with. She can intimate that her favorite flick is Free Willy. The sentences are not exactly Shakespearean, but for an ape without a formal education, they are not a bad start. Asked, for example, what she wished for, Koko answered on one occasion: "Have gorilla another have gorilla have Koko-love." When her pet kitten was run over by a car, the gorilla mourned for months, signing to her trainers, "cry, frown, sad."

It's startling, isn't it? Humans have known for a while now that apes, who share 98.3 percent of our DNA, are not stupid. They are capable of complex decision making and understand social hierarchy. Emotions like affection or jealousy are just the beginning of their psychological breadth. But somehow, the further apes transgress into "our world," the more we strive to justify their intrusion by humanizing them. Apes resemble us, we think, taking signs of superior intelligence in the animal world as proof of their likeness to homo sapiens. Indeed, humans and gorillas are relatives, but what of other mammals who can't use ASL and watch movies, yet exhibit extraordinary capability for emotion, thought, even foresight?

Canadian author Barbara Gowdy has evidently entertained the question for years, and has just published a work of fiction, The White Bone (Metropolitan Books), that is far more outlandish and compelling than any zoological experiment. Gowdy's subject is the African elephant, and her medium a novel conceived and told entirely from his--or more accurately, her--perspective.

The White Bone follows a herd of Kenyan elephants as they make their way through one of the worst droughts in memory, while simultaneously fleeing a band of poachers who have massacred several other herds in a wildlife reserve. At the start of the book, the five-strong family, known as the She-S's (elephants are matrilineal) have lost more than half its members in an ambush near a water source. Those who managed to survive have fled in opposite directions, running deep into unfamiliar territory. Mud, a 13-year-old adopted cow and the novel's spirited heroine, is at the forefront of her family's mission to reunite with Date Bed, a missing adolescent cow and Mud's best friend. Weeks go by as the She-S family (She-Screams, She-Soothes, She-Snorts, Mud, and the newborn Bent) wanders the Domain, a 500-by-300-mile stretch of savanna and desert, in search of survivors.

Like a good work of science fiction, The White Bone takes place in a self-sufficient and brilliantly authentic world. The elephants, as conceived by Gowdy, are obviously anthropomorphic in only one respect: They speak English. In other regards, the book envisions a species that wanders plausibly along the border between human and pachyderm worlds. Amid the high dramas of poacher evasion and drought, Gowdy fastidiously creates the personalities of the individual elephants and the peculiarities of the species.

The specificity of this endeavor is impressive and delightful: Mud, Date Bed and their cohort are characters of as much complexity, intelligence, and depth as any fictional humans. (Should the reader find herself lost in a morass of elephantese, there is a terrific glossary at the front of the book, explaining terms like "speck," "hindleggers," "mind talker," and "mock head drool.") Here, for example, is how the author approaches elephant sexuality:

 

For a moment he inhaled only her calf sweetness. Then he caught a sliver of her nascent cow odour and his penis shot out under his stomach, and Mud squealed and ducked beneath She-Scares. She-Screams stopped her wailing. She-Soothes, with nursely bravado, scented his mouth. There was a silence, broken finally by She-Sees, who said, "My dear, you are a marvelous length. A shame really, that none of us is in our delirium."

"But thank you, nevertheless," She-Snorts called.

 

Unlike its famous genre counterpart Animal Farm, The White Bone isn't a story about us, the hindleggers. There are no deep metaphorical conundrums or clever parallels for us to ponder self-importantly. This, in fact, may be one of The White Bone's most impressive achievements: For a few hundred pages, humans are just another species.

 

 

The elephants of Ashok Mathur's first novel also speak fluent English, but their curious existence, unlike Mud's and Date Bed's, is predicated on human faith in them. Hindu mythology is rife with divine animals and exotic crossbreeds, and the god Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati, is perhaps most tabloid-worthy, with a giant elephant head and a human body.

Recounted from the viewpoints of its seven main characters, some godly, some human, Mathur's Once upon an Elephant (Arsenal Pulp Press) is the story of Ganesh's strange appearance in an unnamed Canadian city. When the police find a neatly severed human head and an elephant's torso lying side by side, they logically assume that a murder has been committed and begin to search for the killer. Soon enough, a suspect is arrested, initiating a series of events even more bizarre than the mere appearance of severed body parts.

Ganesh statues worldwide begin drinking their offerings of milk, Parvati descends upon the Earth and seduces an Indian academic who soon sprouts an extra five pairs of arms, and Hindu deities wander around the Canadian outback talking to elk and coyotes. The murder trial set in a modern Canadian courtroom turns into a parade of the paranormal. Mathur's characters--a gay police officer and his female partner, the trial judge, a legal aide, the Indian professor, Parvati and Ganesh (who appears in several manifestations)--are quirky and on occasion very funny.

Yet, like the novel in whole, the characters are far less compelling than they are vaguely entertaining. For one thing, Mathur has muted their individual differences by burdening everybody, including the gods, with an artificial street patois. Once upon an Elephant is full of so many yos, sortas, s'poses, cuzs, uh-huhs, and other sloppy abbreviations that the novel sometimes reads like a bad screenplay. There is an element of charm in the interaction between this self-conscious dialect and Hindu mythology, especially for those who find the Mahabharata a little antiquated. But Mathur's earthbound characters reveal little substance underneath their hip accents, and by the middle of the novel, we're ready to scrap this cast for ivory.

 

Barbara Gowdy reads at the Hungry Mind Friday, May 7 at 8:00 p.m.; (651) 699-0587.


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