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Reviewed by:
  • La Plume des bêtes: les animaux dans le roman
  • Maeve McCusker
La Plume des bêtes: les animaux dans le roman. Par Lucile Desblache. (Espaces littéraires). Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011. 302 pp.

While the title of this readable monograph might suggest an overwhelming breadth of material, in fact the focus is primarily on two contemporary postcolonial authors, Patrick Chamoiseau and J. M. Coetzee. However, the title’s scope is justified by two rich and insightful opening chapters: ‘Animaux de fiction, fiction des animaux’ and ‘Penser et représenter les animaux’. They survey the literary representation of animals from antiquity through to the present day and locate the ensuing arguments in an impressively wide comparative context. The theoretical reference points range from the literary to the anthropological to the philosophical, from Marina Warner to Claude Lévi-Strauss to Édouard Glissant, and from Donna Haraway to Gilles Deleuze to Jacques Derrida. This theoretical range is matched by an impressive corpus of primary texts that includes La Fontaine, Colette, George Orwell, Angela Carter, and Marie Darrieussecq, to name but a few. Lucile Desblache also authored, in 2002, Bestiaire du roman contemporain d’expression française (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal), so her opening section testifies to a long-standing engagement with the subject of animals in literature. She claims that, in the decade separating her two monographs, the role of animals in fiction has changed: ‘Les créatures non-humaines [. . .] nous parlent beaucoup plus d’elles-mêmes et de nos rapports à elles que de nousmêmes’ (p. 23). In other words, the catastrophic repercussions of human ‘progress’ have cast doubt on hierarchical systems that consign the animal to the margins. Contemporary fiction, rather than stressing the superiority of the human, seeks instead to underline the commonalities between human and non-human animal. The second half of the study proceeds to a more detailed reading of Chamoiseau and Coetzee. Desblache acknowledges that the two authors are ‘aux antipodes des expériences coloniales et postcoloniales’ (p. 22), and does not ignore key differences in their use of animals: while Chamoiseau, for example, features animal protagonists in novels such as L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse (1997) and Les Neuf Consciences du malfini (2009), no animal appears as a main character in Coetzee’s work. Such observations, valid though they are, cannot help but raise questions around the intrinsic comparability of the Martinican and the South African novelists. Both, in any case, are read as being typical of their place of origin: for Coetzee, in contrast with Antillean writers, ‘les animaux ne sont pas tant les agents réconciliateurs des diversités, que le reflet des perplexités, des violences et des désespoirs qui déchirent l’Afrique du Sud’ (p. 160). If Caribbean writing celebrates fusion and diversity, its South African counterpart is a ‘fiction de scission où races et espèces existent en opposition et souffrent de ces ruptures’ (p. 161). While some readers may find such conclusions reductionist, the textual analysis is generally persuasive and engaging. Of the three indexes at the end of the study — of authors and critics, of concepts, and of animals — it is undoubtedly the last that will prove most useful, allowing students of all literature (and not just [End Page 140] postcolonial) to see at a glance how particular animals have been represented in writing through the ages.

Maeve McCusker
Queen’s University Belfast


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pp. 140-141
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