The Story of a Goat
By Perumal Murugan. Translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman
Black Cat/Grove. 192. pp. $16
Say what you will about goats, but they rarely take offense.
For Indian writer Perumal Murugan, that’s a welcome change. Five years ago, Murugan endured such violent protests against one of his books that he and his family were forced to flee their home. The novel in question, “One Part Woman,” dared to imagine a religious rite involving radical sexual freedom. Hindu fundamentalists burned copies of his book and initiated criminal proceedings, insisting it be withdrawn. The antagonism shook Murugan so profoundly that he told his followers on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”
Happily, authors in India and around the world rose to Murugan’s defense, and in 2016 an Indian court unequivocally confirmed his creative license. The judges’ verdict, which included a rousing survey of the history and importance of freedom of expression, concluded, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
And so now, Murugan has risen again. With goats.
“The Story of a Goat,” translated from Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, jumps nimbly from fantasy to realism to parable. How much it resonates with you will depend on the breadth of your sympathies and your interest in adult tales that include the thoughts and feelings of animal characters. The effect is not so much escapist fantasy as existential reflection.
Murugan’s plot involves a poor old man and his wife – neither named – who live in an arid farming village in southern India. In the opening scene, an extraordinarily tall stranger walks up to the old man and announces that he has been wandering from village to village looking for the right person to receive his black baby goat. “She is no ordinary kid,” the giant man says. “She is truly a miracle.”
So far, so fairy tale, but the story drifts back into the quotidian details of village life. The old man takes this tiny kid home. His wife names it Poonachi and devotes herself to the difficult job of keeping such a small, sickly creature alive. They don’t have much to spare, but the effort revives them both. “It had been a long time since there was such pleasant chit-chat between the couple,” Murugan writes. “Because of the kid’s sudden entry into their lives, they ended up talking about the old days.”
You may be tempted to think this novel doesn’t interest you, doesn’t relate to the sophisticated architecture of your experience, but the elegance of Murugan’s simple tone will lull you deeper into his story. If there’s something remote about the work of subsistence farming and the friction of a small village, there’s also something hypnotic about the rhythms of such a life. Murugan knows these farmers. They love their animals with a clear-eyed devotion that our sentimental regard for pets only thinly resembles.
The early scenes of tiny Poonachi wandering in the field and cavorting with other goats are as soft as cashmere. For a time, Murugan seems to be working in the stable of Dick King-Smith, who gave us the children’s classic “Babe the Gallant Pig.” The narrative even seems to shift toward the Hundred Acre Wood. Murugan never goes full-on Winnie-the-Pooh – these animals don’t actually speak – but we begin to hear Poonachi’s funny thoughts and animal concerns.
But beware: This little goat confronts the bloody events of a real farm. (Parents will quickly realize that “The Story of a Goat” is not for young readers.) Poonachi’s attraction to another kid and her hatred of the yoke are translated into human language only lightly covered in goatish fur. Simple as her concerns are, they stem from a place of real despair. And though, admittedly, the field is not crowded, Murugan’s novel contains the most romantic goat sex scene I’ve ever read. It also contains a breeding episode that comes across as a brutally mechanical rape.
In the preface to “The Story of a Goat,” Murugan suggests that he’s “fearful of writing about humans.” But if he still feels stung by the abuse he suffered at the hands of right-wing zealots, he shows few signs of cowering. Woven through this slim novel is an acidic satire about the burdens and humiliations of the over-regulated country in which the old man and woman live. His portrayal of arrogant officials who intimidate these poor people with a blizzard of regulations and forms will make you pine for the relative graciousness of the DMV. Murugan never pushes the point, but it’s clear that the human characters are not much freer than the goats they keep penned in their yard.
Self-aware animals such as Poonachi play a curious role in literature. They serpentine through our earliest stories, starting with the subtle serpent in Genesis and the clever beasts of Greek and African mythologies. Without any apparent confusion, children are raised on tales of cuddly animals who talk to humans and each other. But then, all too soon, the quadrupeds, birds and reptiles are shooed out of the house of “serious novels” and corralled apart in genre fiction.
Fortunately, as “The Story of a Goat” demonstrates, just because we’ve put away childish things doesn’t mean we have to deny ourselves the strange pleasure of fiction in which animals articulate their own curious perspectives on their lives – and ours.
Here are 10 novels that give voice to animals in wildly creative ways:
— “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell (1945). In this barnyard tale – inspired by the horrors of the old Soviet Union – Orwell presents a timeless critique of the abuses of power.
— “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” by Marlon James (2019). Drawing on African mythology, James tells a spectacularly violent story about a leopard-man and a gang of unruly companions trying to find a kidnapped boy.
— “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” by Benjamin Hale (2011). A comically ostentatious chimp who can quote Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot describes his romantic relationship with a researcher.
— “Horse Heaven,” by Jane Smiley (2000). Smiley gives full rein to her love of horses in this novel about racing, breeding and training – and in a few cases, she narrates equine thoughts, too.
— “Memoirs of a Polar Bear,” by Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky (2016). In this moving and absurdist novel, three generations of polar bears describe their lives as circus performer, ballet dancer and writer.
— “The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka (1915). One morning a salesman named Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a hideous bug, and since then the world has been struggling to figure out what that means.
— “My Cat Yugoslavia,” by Pajtim Statovci, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (2017). A lonely immigrant in Finland meets an acerbic cat in a gay bar for a dark, comic story about modern dislocation.
— “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski (2008). With a nod to “Hamlet,” a mute boy and his parents in a small Wisconsin town develop a private language with their special breed of remarkable dogs.
— “Three Bags Full,” by Leonie Swann, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (2007). Nobody can pull the wool over the eyes of these Irish sheep who are determined to find out who murdered their shepherd.
— “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler (2013). I’m cheating here, but just a bit: In this story based on several real-life experiments, a woman looks back at the emotional effects of being raised as the sister of a chimp and then losing her.