For my twenty-sixth birthday, in 1996, I got a copy of J.M. Coetzee's novel The Master of Petersburg. I read it in one night, a unique occurrence in the life of a person whose most obvious talent is for sleeping. A few days later I read it again, then again. Then I read all the other books by Coetzee, rereading each of them right after the first perusal and usually again a few weeks later. Since the establishment of amazon.de, it has become much less costly and complicated to purchase English-language books while living in Vienna. From time to time, I search the foreign-language books section for ‘j m coetzee’ and pre-order any upcoming titles. Now that Coetzee has taken, in order not to succumb to the hegemony of the Anglosphere, to releasing his books in Spanish first, that would most recently include the Siete cuentos morales. And since I pre-ordered De foto's van Jongensjaren, a book of photos taken by John Coetzee during his schooldays, amazon.de keeps encouraging me to change my language preference to Dutch, of which I have only an insufficient grasp.
One book by Coetzee, however, I did not order: The Lives of Animals. Of all the aspects of Coetzee's writing, his concern with animal welfare alone had always annoyed me. When I did, on a whim, buy it in 2014, I could not bring myself to open it for more than a few seconds. Animal-loving and meat-hating followed by some ‘ugly academic jargon’ (to cite Virginia Woolf) from professors whose very existence I doubted, but whose names I could not be bothered to Google. I have little patience for hysterical sermons, and life is too short for reading academic prose. So, I placed The Lives of Animals on a shelf of yet-to-be-read books in my study, away from the other Coetzees. From time to time I would stand in front of the shelf, deciding which book to read, and I would invariably flinch from The Lives.
At a personal level, vegetarianism is a relatively harmless eating disorder. As an ideology, it is a nuisance with its pseudo-ethical balderdash and its lifestyle pietism, but again harmless, not to be compared to religion proper or its little brother, racism. There are some very good arguments in favour of avoiding meat (too much is unhealthy; meat production causes major environmental problems; the industrial production of meat is ethically and aesthetically appalling), and I could almost pass as a flexitarian myself. Some of my best friends have been vegetarian or vegan, and it has never been an issue. When they were Jewish, I always thought it was their way of ensuring a quasi-kosher diet, which for some reason I found slightly less silly than animal-loving.
Like we forgive our loved ones their faults, even gross transgressions which we would not tolerate in strangers or ourselves, we put up with totally unacceptable tendencies in the writers we like. Schopenhauer's grotesque misogyny and anti-Semitism do not much diminish him in my esteem; Céline, despite his murderous hatred of Jews, is still an interesting novelist; I do not care that Dostoevsky decided to be Christian. And the charges of animal-rights naiveté and vegetarianism, which I could bring against Coetzee, are the lightest of charges, practically not charges at all. One rightly tends to ignore such things, in life and in literature.
During a meeting with winemakers in 2015, Miloš Zeman, the controversial Czech president, opined that those who never drank wine and enjoyed music in the company of their friends the way it is traditionally done in his country could not be considered fully human in the same way like us. He concluded his speech with the words ‘Death to teetotallers and vegetarians!’ While I disapprove of the insulting and violent language the president used, my gut reaction to his words was: Good guy, Zeman. I know exactly what you mean.
My father was born in 1926. Like many Austrians of his generation, he grew up an involuntary vegetarian. My grandfather was a shoemaker, and shoemaking was a fading trade, and he had a wife and five children to feed. Later in life, when times got better after World War Two, my grandparents kept sheep, rabbits, and chicken on the small piece of land they owned. My father tended to eat meat almost every day, again like many of his age and station in life. And I am historically inclined to find vegetarianism somewhat gratuitous. This inclination is corroborated by the existence of about a billion chronically undernourished fellow humans on this planet as of today.
While some of my habits and opinions are now far removed from those of the people among whom I grew up, I have never seen any reason to change the dietary mores I have inherited. The only strict prohibition concerned human flesh, and nobody ever thought or talked about that. And there was one moot point which I remember sometimes discussing with other kids: Would you, in China or Korea, where that is a normal thing to do, eat a cat or a dog? Most kids said they would not. I said I would.
My favourite food is roast pork with bread dumplings and either four pints of beer or a standard bottle of red wine. Let me, however, add that I abstain from alcohol for several months every year (one cannot drink and play football at my age), and that I am familiar with the feeling of alienation which the great Austrian writer Gerhard Amanshauser describes in his diary entry for 17 September 1977:
“While I was eating roast pork at Attnang [a railway junction in Upper Austria] before the train arrived, I was again seized by that feeling of alienation: In a strangely ceremonious manner, an apparelled animal eats another animal that has been especially prepared and flavoured. Then that animal-eater repairs to a rolling cabinet of iron.” (G. Amanshauser, Es wäre schön, kein Schriftsteller zu sein, Residenz Verlag 2012, p. 99; my translation)
In book 3, chapter 38 of his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of how King Darius asked first the Greeks for what price they would eat their fathers' dead bodies (there was no price for which they would do it, they answered), and then the Callatiae of India, who ate their parents, what would make them willing to burn their fathers once they had died (they protested he should not even mention such a horrid act). Herodotus concludes the anecdote by quoting Pindar: Custom/the law (νόμος) is the king of everything.
Well, in most parts of the world, kings are a thing of the past or at least have been reduced to a largely ceremonial function. Unfortunately, non-royal dictators and even democratically elected rulers have not always turned out much more beneficial than their kingly cousins. But just as a life in miserable freedom is preferable to a life in splendid slavery, the worst republic is superior to the best monarchy. Not only can we negotiate our inherited customs and laws; in an increasingly globalised world we have to.
I have been a long-distance co-owner of a pet three times.
The first was a small white terrier who (note the pronoun) lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. While most of our neighbours would go south, to the Adriatic Sea, on their holidays, we went to České Budějovice, a.k.a. Budweis, several times a year. This entailed trips to Vienna to obtain visas from the Czechoslovak embassy, long waits at the border, bribing the machine gun-wielding border guards with biros and razors, and I remember at least one visit to an OVIR-type registration office, which was probably more Austro-Hungarian than Soviet in its modus operandi. Too young for the beer, I enjoyed the meat and the knedlíky and the buchty. Most of our Bohemian friends spoke good German, but one of the few phrases of Czech we picked up was Alane, pocem, which you used to summon the little white terrier. On the last day of a visit, I always grew wistful and could not be separated from the dog. For many years, we thought he was called Alane, and only when I was studying Slavic languages at university did it occur to me that Alane must have been the vocative case of the dog's name, Alan.
Then there was Diana, who my then girlfriend in Kiev had brought home from the woods. Diana was black and was said to be a Tibetan terrier, and she did indeed resemble that breed, both in appearance and character. I took her on many walks, and as she grew older carried her up and down the stairs. We were tremendous friends.
My latest ex-girlfriend got a cat for her daughter, but it was of course the grown-ups who took care of him. Findus was raised an indoor cat. As my relations with his owner deteriorated, I increasingly found myself sharing a room with him. After the break-up, Findus moved to a house and garden in the leafy suburb of Klosterneuburg. At the age of four, he became an outdoor cat. He is a fierce fighter who ferociously defends his territory. He has killed and brought home one mouse. I give myself credit for training him by regularly playing various fitness-oriented games with him when he was little. When he was taken to his old indoor habitat for a few days, he fell into a depression. But then I visited him and he greeted me like a dog and we played the games we used to play back in the days.
The Lives of Animals was still sitting on the shelf, unread, when I wrote My Metamorphosis. I keep a cuddly leopard cub on my desk, and it was a leopard I decided to transform into. I wrote the story not against Kafka, who is a worthwhile writer, even though he could not finish a novel and his obsession with paternal authority and family matters mars much of his oeuvre, but against the popular cult of his Metamorphosis. I sometimes feel it is an anti-Teutonic ruse which international commentators on German literature employ when they treat Kafka and Thomas Mann (the only thing that was first-rate about whom were his manners) as the greatest German-language authors. Then again, Philip Larkin said foreigners did not understand Anglophone literature; they liked Poe and Byron. I do like Poe and Byron, but I like Larkin more.
My first-person narrator thinks he is watching himself in a mirror when he realises that he is being attacked by another leopard. He understands that he is not the only human to have changed species. Needless to say, my leopard preys on a lot of other animals. Once, in a frenzy, he kills a stableful of farm animals, making sure no more sound can be heard. He sleeps a lot and generally behaves like a cross between Findus and me. He rants against lions because he does not like kings. He does not much like tigers either, who are stronger than him but much less adaptable. He finds a leopardess, but she fights him off and he decides she must have been a lesbian as a human. He wants to reach his fellow leopards in his natural African habitat, or at least climb the heights of the Alps like Hemingway's leopard climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, but humans shoot him with a tranquillizer gun.
My publisher said I should turn it into a novel.
I chose Pascal's Abêtissez-vous as a motto. I take it as an exhortation to probe our own beastly heritage, to listen to and follow our evolutionary instincts. Of course, such an experiment can only be conducted, and its results must be analysed and assessed by the faculty which distinguishes us from the other animals, reason.
In J.C. Kannemeyer's biography of J.M. Coetzee, which generally keeps a respectful distance from its subject's personal issues and does not engage in speculation about the facts it reports, there is a rather uncharacteristic passage:
“The Perolds [family friends] remembered that John, in their years in Wynberg, sometimes shot at cats with a shotgun. In Tokai, the Coetzees owned a dog that Philippa [the writer's wife] was very fond of, but John not. [...] According to Philippa's account to the Perolds, John one day deliberately left the gate open. The dog slipped out, landed under a passing motor car, came back and crawled under Philippa's bed to die.
If indeed the incident with the dog was a deliberate act by John and not a misinterpretation on Philippa's part, it might represent a turning point in the life of someone who, later in his work, would take a very strong stand on animal rights. It could be that his conversion to vegetarianism was also connected with this[.]” (J.C. Kannemeyer, J.M. Coetzee, A Life in Writing, translated by M. Heyns, Scribe Publications 2013, p. 323)
In Coetzee's best-known novel, Disgrace, animals figure prominently. David Lurie indulges his revulsion when Petrus and the men he sent to rape his lesbian daughter Lucy slaughter a lamb. The men also shot the dogs which were supposed to protect Lucy. David ends up devoting himself to work at the animal clinic, which mostly consists in euthanizing the white people's watchdogs left over from the apartheid era.
Just two thoughts. The first concerns prostitution. Lurie frequents prostitutes, but the ethical concerns which this behaviour raises are left implicit. The sexual traumatisation of the women, the physical and economic violence, the sometimes slave-like social conditions in which prostitutes live are not brought up. The narrative stance seems to be that prostitution is a fact of life, just like for myself eating meat is a fact of life. Lurie changes his ways at the end of the book, but it is still telling that, while the suffering of animals is made explicit, human misery is only hinted at.
The second concerns the question of why I think Coetzee is a great writer and Disgrace a great book. There is no easy answer. Actually, the only honest answer would be I don't know. The relationship between a writer and a reader is as complicated as that between a donor and a recipient of blood, and such factors as style, themes, or a shared cultural background are as deceptive in literature as skin colour, features, or sex in medicine.
Marina Tsvetaeva famously said that All poets are Jews. By poets (поэты) she probably meant all artistically inclined people, and for Jews she used the word жиды, which in contemporary Russian has been replaced by the word евреи (Hebrews, originally a euphemism) and is now considered an anti-Semitic slur when utter