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  • The Storied Lives of Non-Human Narrators
  • Lars Bernaerts (bio), Marco Caracciolo (bio), Luc Herman (bio), and Bart Vervaeck (bio)

This essay examines the phenomenon of non-human storytelling. We take our departure from the paradoxical idea that readers are invited to reflect upon aspects of human life when reading the fictional life stories of non-human narrators, whether they are animals, objects, or indefinable entities. By giving voice to non-human things and animals such as a stuffed squirrel, a lump of coal, or a dog, these narratives may [End Page 68] highlight and even challenge our conception of the human. In addition, they may confront us with our propensity to empathize with fictional autobiographical narrators and to narrativize our own lives in particular ways. On the level of meaning, there is a whole range of motifs, themes, and functions with which non-human narration may be associated in particular narratives. On the level of form and effects, however, there are interesting parallels between different non-human narrators. It will become clear that, even though the umbrella term “non-human narration” comprises a great variety of narrators, these character-narrators have something in common as a narrative device.

In the first part of this essay, we introduce a conceptual framework for the study of non-human narration, and we give some examples to illustrate its recurring features and functions. Instead of examining non-human narration through the lens of a single concept (e.g., “estrangement” or “the unnatural”), we argue that it is more accurate to conceive of it as the result of a double dialectic of empathy and defamiliarization, human and non-human experientiality. Non-human narrators prompt readers to project human experience onto creatures and objects that are not conventionally expected to have that kind of mental perspective (in other words, readers “empathize” and “naturalize”); at the same time, readers have to acknowledge the otherness of non-human narrators, who may question (defamiliarize) some of readers’ assumptions and expectations about human life and consciousness. Since this double dialectic always functions in a particular context, we demonstrate it in illustrations and case studies that cover a range of non-human narrators. In the case studies that make up the second part of the essay, we first investigate non-human animal narrators in stories by Franz Kafka and Julio Cortázar, drawing attention to the way in which literature can challenge readers’ familiarity with mental processes via their empathetic engagement with animal minds. In order to avoid a view on non-human narration that is biased by examples from “high literature,” we also analyze inanimate narration in a nineteenth-century collection of children’s stories. In this case, the device of it-narration generates narrative interest by means of defamiliarization, which turns the text into a vehicle for scientific knowledge. In sum, the case studies contain different kinds of non-human narrators (animals and objects), and different generic features affecting the text-reader negotiation in which empathy and defamiliarization come into being.

Non-Human Narration in Literary Fiction

There are many intriguing examples of non-human narrators in literary fiction. In Italo Calvino’s cosmicomic stories (Tutte le cosmicomiche, 1997), the character narrator is a kind of shapeshifter. In the opening chapter of Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) the narrator is a witty woodworm. A statue is the homodiegetic narrator in Harry Mulisch’s novella The Statue and the Clock (Het beeld en de klok, 1989). The narrating voice of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), a novel told backwards, inhabits the body of the protagonist and distances itself from the human [End Page 69] species. In Rat (1993), the widely read novel by the Polish writer Andrzej Zaniewksi, a rat gives a detailed account of its life, from its birth to its death. In Two Brothers (Dos Hermanos, 1995), a novel by the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, the story is told by a bird, squirrels, a star, a snake, and a wild goose. The Flemish author Jan Lauwereyns has written a novel in which the narrator is a captive monkey that is used as a laboratory animal (Monkey Business, 2003...