Animals appear throughout literature of all languages and reading levels. Often used allegorically or to represent human foibles, they star in fables and myths, drive origin stories, scamper through children’s literature, and play major roles in narratives of all genres.
This month we’ve visited the archive to round up stories featuring animals both wild and tame, in tales that range from folklore to contemporary war stories and in settings from cozy domesticity to stark wilderness. While some lean toward the fantastic—animals speak with both humans and each other—and others offer more realistic milieus, they all provide illuminating portraits of human-animal relationships.
Many legends are grounded in centuries of harmonious interspecies coexistence. The Himalayan folktale “When the Deer Moved Away” describes how the arrival of an outsider upends a village’s seasonal tradition, with tragic and permanent results. As such it serves as both origin story and cautionary tale of the costs of disrupting natural rhythms.
Some of the animals here possess the power of speech, deploying it to often subversive ends. Álvaro Cunqueiro’s “Alberte Merlo’s Horse” finds a Galician Mr. Ed renegotiating his relationship with his owner. When he gets the upper hand, it’s clear who’s holding the reins.
Cats Rafi and Spaghetti provide running commentary on graphic artist Ilana Zeffren’s home life with her partner in “This Is How It Is When You’re Involved with Sensitive Girls.” Like Alberte Merlo’s horse, they speak to their owners, dividing their time between sleeping, eating, lolling about, and delivering their arch feline play-by-play on the household events that they both observe and affect.
Another perspective comes from Mboudjak, the canine narrator of Patrice Nganang’s “Barking,” who recounts the gradual, inevitable process of his domestication. His initial resistance to the restrictions imposed by human expectations dwindles, replaced by first grudging accommodation and then canny acceptance: “I might be a dog, but I'm not stupid.”
A far less civilized hound slouches through Eeva Park’s “A Dog’s Life.” Here a random act of kindness proves to be more than simple charity. A woman feeds a stray dog and meets his ragged owner, with whom she turns out to have a startling connection. She takes in both dog and man, but subsequent events suggest that both are more at home on the streets.
The arrival of a kitten shifts the dynamic of the multigenerational household of Xi Xi’s “Davin Chan Moves Out.” When the title character’s cat-hating wife causes the death of the new pet, Davin’s brother mourns his loss with a vengeance. Spooked by his ghoulish memorials and the discovery of a serial killer in the neighborhood, the frazzled woman makes a dramatic choice.
A man desperate for an heir resorts to superstition to jack up his potency in Wong Koi Tet’s “Black Panther.” The childless Ong Par has exhausted the available folk remedies when a panther escapes from the nearby zoo. His fruitless pursuit of the animal and its aphrodisiacal organ leads to a surprising reveal and a welcome reversal of fortune.
Another standoff between man and beast ends less happily. Juan José Millás’s "Agony in the Kitchen" depicts a fretful traveler who installs his family in a beautiful seaside house but can't take a holiday from his anxiety. Will the children be swept away by the tide? Is the car door locked? Did his wife turn off the television? ("You turned off the circuit breaker," she reminds him.) The agony of the title refers directly to the last minutes of the lobster stashed in the sink overnight; wakened by its death throes, the man tries to put it out of its misery but only prolongs his own.
The conflicts are strictly between humans in Hassan Blasim’s “The Green Zone Rabbit.” Two would-be assassins hole up in Baghdad with the incongruous pet of the title. Awaiting their orders, they instead receive an anonymous message both cryptic and ominous. In this atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances, the violent conclusion is both shocking and inevitable.
But if you’d prefer to end on a cheerier note, get on board with the retiring engineer of Sergi Pamiès’s "End of the Line” on his last day at the throttle. His spontaneous farewell to a crucial colleague is a fitting adieu to his job and a reminder of the reliable comfort provided by our four-legged cohorts.
As the stories this month demonstrate, animals are often at the center of our world—sometimes uncomfortably so. Whether your taste runs to tabbies or tigers, though, we hope you’ll enjoy visiting the many species inhabiting this menagerie.
© 2022 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.