It’s not often I venture out into the big bad city, but once a year I (usually) try to go in for a couple of events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. This year I attended two rather different sessions, one slightly more high-profile than the other, but both were interesting in different ways. Let’s start off the recap today, with a look at a big name of the literary scene, and a rather unusual setting…
First up was an hour in the company of J.M. Coetzee, the South-African born, Australian resident Nobel Prize in Literature recipient. He was here to read his (unpublished?) short story ‘The Glass Abattoir’, and that proved to be the whole of the session. As he promised at the start, it took him around forty-five minutes to get through it, and with no questions permitted, he went straight to signing books. It’s not something I’d experienced before, but it did make for a rather focused and interesting event.
‘The Glass Abattoir’ is a story centred around a series of discussions between John Costello and his elderly mother, Elizabeth. The piece begins with Elizabeth outlining her fanciful plans for a small abattoir in the middle of the city, one with transparent walls so that everyone could see exactly what was happening. In such a way, people would be forced to acknowledge exactly what goes on when living animals are transformed into meat, and would perhaps decide that the price paid was far too high…
The son is later reminded of the conversation when he receives a collection of documents in the post, a jumble of papers that his mother has sent him for no apparent reason. However, he soon discovers a common thread running through them, an interest in, and concern for, the way animals are treated by their human overlords. His mother has commented on a number of texts on the topic, trying to make sense of what experts in the field think about it. Soon, though, John begins to think that there’s a reason his mother sent these papers around the world, one that is eventually revealed in another of their telephone conversations.
It’s an excellent piece, divided into six parts, with the first and last sections book-ending the son’s reading sessions of the various documents. As you can tell, it’s a tale where very little happens among the main characters, but the real story lies in the experiences Elizabeth has documented. In a journal entry describing a goat being led to slaughter at a market in Djibouti, she tries to put herself inside the mind of the goat, asking the animal what it was thinking on the way to its death and whether it suspected that this was the end. As she remarks, “Perhaps the way of the goat is to live in hope.”
This desire to know more about whether, or how, animals feel and think leads to comments on several texts by experts, even if she can’t always bring herself to agree with their findings. This quest to find out more about what we call animals leads us to explore Heidegger’s dismissal of some creatures as Weltarm (having a poor sense of the world), Descartes’ rather horrific experiments on live rabbits and a discussion on angels, mainly to explain how impossible it is for us to truly understand what goes on in the minds of beings so different to ourselves as animals.
While for the most part the discussion remains detached, and at times even humorous (the Heidegger section, with its contradictions between the philosopher’s insistence on rational thought and his lustful relationship with Hannah Ahrendt, raised a good few laughs), the subject matter ensures that there’s a fairly sombre tone throughout. When we get to the end, and Elizabeth finally reveals why she sent her son the scattered papers, there’s one last story to relate, and it’s one that shines a rather harsh light on us as humans. Elizabeth eventually confirms that, “It is for them that I write”, and ‘The Glass Abattoir’ is certainly a fitting plea for us to step back and rethink our relationship with other creatures.
Forty-five minutes simply listening to a story may not sound that enthralling (and the chairs, not exactly suited to those with lower back issues, made the experience a rather uncomfortable one), but I enjoyed the session immensely. Coetzee was a good reader, clear and fluent, with a fairly neutral Australianised accent (the most obvious of the few remaining traces of his South African background was the way he pronounced the word ‘off’ as ‘orf’). The audience was silent for the most part, apart from a few giggles in the Heidegger sections and some gasps when a particularly gruesome fate was described. Listening is a very different experience to reading, and in some ways I think more of the details sank in from this method of taking in the story – I suspect that I would have finished this off in fifteen minutes or so on the page, and it may not have left such an impression.
I can’t finish my summary of the event, though, without mentioning the location. This event was just one of many on the MWF schedule set in a so-called Animal Church, a temporary setting for several sessions focusing on animal rights. Coetzee’s reading was held on a stage with a backdrop of flowers and a whole host of photographs of cats and dogs. When complemented by the dim lighting, it did make for a rather spiritual setting. Overall, an interesting experience, then. Whether it will have the desired effect is another matter entirely…