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The Lives of Animals

Reviewed by Keith Akers

The Lives of Animals, by J. M. Coetzee. Princeton University Press, 1999. 127 pages.

Do not be misled by the title: this book sounds like it might be a discussion of the lives of animals, but it is rather a novel in which the characters discuss the lives of animals. This brief book is the story of an aging novelist (Elizabeth Costello) who is invited to give a lecture at a famous university. Instead of talking about some literary subject or about her own novels, though, she talks about animal rights. She gives one lecture on the philosophers and the animals, and then the next day on the poets and the animals. There are questions, interchanges, and issues raised, both during the talk and afterwards.

What makes the book diverting is that while the protagonist (Elizabeth Costello) is a vegetarian, the story is told through the eyes of her meat-eating son, who has married a meat-eating wife (Norma) who is completely hostile to Elizabeth. In fact, the wife is so thoroughly evil that one feels the only correct ending for the story is for Elizabethís son to walk out on her--which, alas, does not happen. The novelís aging protagonist, Elizabeth, has clearly made the arguments before; she knows that she will not encounter instant conversions, but simply a wall of resistance. She makes the arguments anyway in as blunt and persuasive a manner as she can summon.

The story is less than half of this short book, which includes also an introduction by Amy Gutman, and interesting commentaries afterwards by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, and Barbara Smuts. Peter Singerís contribution is diverting--he creates a response which takes the same form as the novel, an account of a conversation between Peter Singer and his more radical daughter. But the most interesting commentary is by Barbara Smuts, who tells of her actual experiences with baboons as her contribution to the question of what the lives of animals really are.

I was stunned, however, by the failure of all the commentators to grasp what to me is the central theme of the book--the alienation between the two sides. The commentators all tended to take the book as being "about" the arguments that the fictional Elizabeth Costello makes. The real question the book raises is, can we as vegetarians have any dialogue with the meat-eating world at all? Or are the divisions so deep that neither common academic training, nor common culture, nor even familial ties can bridge the gap?