An eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.
Review of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi, 2015). Sunday Times, 9 May 2015. Longer version at Books Live.
Now that Cecil Rhodes has been toppled from his plinth and trucked away for safekeeping, the question is what exactly to do with the man. One idea has been to relocate the statue to the Old Zoo just beyond the edge of the University of Cape Town’s campus. It is a lush, unsettling place of stone ruins and overgrown cages, where rough sleepers sleep rough in graffiti-covered enclosures and students sneak off for a joint between lectures. Instead of gazing out toward hinterlands, here the imperialist could himself be gazed at – not unlike like the various animals that he once installed in this 19th-century menagerie.
The Old Zoo is at the heart of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s remarkable new novel: an eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals. Though in her vision of the near future, The Lion House has become a modernized research institute and tourist attraction. It is dedicated to breeding extinct animals back into the world (‘Like they did with quaggas’) with two black-maned descendants of the vanished Cape lion as the star attraction. This until one of the employees gets (like the unfortunate Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man) too close to the animals, and is badly mauled.
For most of the novel Mark lies in hospital, suspended Lazarus-like in bandages, while an old friend Constantine (Con) takes his place as a volunteer, comforts his elderly mother, figures out his life. And so the novel engages that fertile but often ignored literary subject – a difficult friendship – and the way in which the fierce intimacies of youth dwindle to mere adult acquaintance. We gradually learn of Con and Mark’s childhood together and the tragedy that haunts it; but there is little by way of plot to intrude on the novel’s main achievement: the evocation of a world in which most wild animals have disappeared – and what the psychic consequences of this might be.
In this future that may well be the present, Table Mountain has become a fenced preserve for the few species that remain: a 21st-century Ark that is guarded and (in theory) only accessible through expensive guided tours. But as Con’s relationship with an ambitious actress falters, he is repeatedly drawn away from her slick Sea Point flat and across boundaries of all kinds: of class, age and species. Each chapter is named for an animal: rooikat, stegosaurus, lobster, parrot, eland… Sometimes the reason is clear; elsewhere we are left wondering how the animal trace might be silently shaping the prose we read. At the elusive centre of the work is the remaining lioness Sekhmet, who reclines in the shadows of the enclosure: out of vision but audible, smellable.
Not a pet owner myself, not unduly concerned with cat videos or charismatic megafauna, not quite sure about the Kruger Park – I could hardly be classed as ‘an animal person’. Certainly not the kind of animal person who populates one wry scene in the novel, where a cultish group gather in a suburb that I took to be Plumstead, reverently watching nature documentaries and fondling pythons with quasi-religious intensity. ‘There’s …energy we get from wild animals’, says one of the group, ‘And because there are so few wild creatures left now, we have to find ways of getting that contact’.
But the power of Green Lion is to remind us that we are all, in fact, animal people. That the physical and psychological residue of the creatures we evolved with and from is still within us: in our figures of speech, on our currency, in our dreams, in our breathing, our scent. It is intriguing how the novel exchanges sight, that most imperious of senses, for smell. The erotic charge of human musk; the ‘humble animal funk’ of dirty socks; the chemical smell that haunts Mark’s family home, full of taxidermied creatures – this sensory register works to estrange and deepen a story that might otherwise be written off as just another suburban family history with a secret lurking in its past.
The novel’s idiosyncrasy is welcome in a place where the stories we agree to tell ourselves about ‘nature’ are often so predictable. For many, the very phrase ‘nature writing’ is a drab one. It conjures ideas of purple prose, piousness or sentimentality: a kind of writing that is often anodyne and politically toothless. Or else conservative and misanthropic in its commitment to deep ecology and wilderness as the antidote to everything human. The critiques of this idea of nature are also familiar by now: that the conservation of animals has often been at the expense of human beings (Rhodes was, after all, an early conservationist); that loving the natural world means not loving the human one.
One of Rose-Innes’s most vital achievements as a novelist is to have escaped these bifurcated logics and found other – beguilingly other – ways of writing the complex ecologies of which we form part. From the aquarium scenes in her debut Shark’s Egg to the mountain boulder that comes crashing toward a glass-walled mansion in Homing; from the non-specific environmental crisis in her prize-winning story ‘Poison’ to the mysterious insect infestation that menaces a luxury seafront development in Nineveh – she has repeatedly been drawn to the porous edgelands of our built world. Her prose is minutely alert to what George Steiner called ‘teeming strangeness and menace’ of the organic presence all around us, and the pressure that it exerts at the borders of our understanding.
There is a laden, even scriptural character to the writing that can be challenging at points, but it slowly opens out into set-pieces of real power. If contour maps are one technique of reducing a mountain to two dimensions, another is descriptive prose. The later chapters – which follow Con disorientatedly roaming a mountain chain that is both familiar and deeply strange – must be one of the most powerful renderings of its reservoirs, mist, foliage and stone ever committed to paper. The novel dislocates Table Mountain National Park from its conventional framings of tourism and leisure in order to log its uncanny, indifferent presence – its unnatural history.
Pulsing behind it all is a something deeply sorrowful: a work of mourning for both the human losses within the book but also the life forms that are vanishing from the earth beyond. The story of organic evolution, ecologists remind us, is underwritten by loss on a quite unimaginable scale: the fossil record shows that 99 per cent of all life that has ever existed on earth has gone extinct. Now we find ourselves in the midst of the sixth major extinction event, but the first caused by an animal, Homo sapiens, that has assumed geomorphic powers. Turning away from the ‘human interest’ stories that dominate our news feeds and 24-hour media cycles, Green Lion reads as a local requiem for this global story: for the vast planetary die-off that is mostly happening outside language, that is both immeasurably sad and inescapably ‘natural’. Rose-Innes’s work seeks out ways of honouring our animal ghosts and keeping them, in some small and symbolic measure, alive.