29 May 2009

Strictly for the birds

Unreal nature has just used the wonderful word "anthropomorally" in connection with human attitudes to the eating of songbirds by blue jays. I responded with a comment about it being interesting that humans are anthropomorally revulsed by birds eating birds but not mammals eating mammals. We are not talking of avian cannibalism here (there may be biological justifications for cannibalism taboos) but the equivalent, for example, of a human eating rabbit or venison. (For the record, before anyone asks: though not choosing to do it myself, I have no objection in principle to a human eating rabbit or venison.)

The train of thought led me to Chapter 10 in Michael Chabon's The final solution, where the narrative shifts into the internal voice of Bruno the parrot. Bruno, through Chabon's pen, exhibits a revulsion which (I hypothesise from no firm basis whatsoever) he probably would not really feel. Normally this would irritate me but Chabon uses it to such literary effect that I freely forgive him. Here is a large chunk of chapter 10 – not just the bits relevant to anthropomorality, but enough to give a flavour of the whole.

"He had seen madmen: the man who smelled of boiled bird-flesh was going mad.

He knew the smell of bird-flesh, for they ate it. They ate anything. The knowledge that the men of his home forests would burn and eat with relish the flesh of his own kind was a stark feature of his ancestral lore. In the first days of his captivity the contemplation of their bloody diet and the likelihood that he was being kept by them against the satiation of some future hunger so troubled and revolted him that he had fallen silent and chewed a bald place in the feathers of his breast. By now he was long accustomed to the horror of their appetites, and he had lost the fear of being eaten; in so far as he had observed them, these men, pale creatures, though they devoured birds in cruel abundance and variety, arbitrarily exempted his kind from slaughter. The bird they ate most often was the kurcze Hahne poulet chicken kip, and it was this odour, of a chicken slaughtered and boiled in water with carrots and onions, that, for some reason, the man who was going mad exuded, even though he never appeared to eat anything more than toast and tinned sardines.

In the Dutchman's house, by the harbour, on the island of his hatching, when he still feared the fires and teeth of these terrible apes with their strange, beguiling songs, he had gone, he supposed, slightly mad himself. As he watched the boiled-chicken man, Kalb, stalk back and forth across the room, hour after hour, the pelt of his head disordered, the pelt of his face grown thick, singing softly to himself, the parrot would creep, in unwilling sympathy, from one end to the other of his perch, and feel a certain comfort in so doing, and recall how, in those first fearful months with the Dutchman, he had passed hours making the same short journey, back and forth, silently chewing on his own plumage until he bled.

He had seen madmen. The Dutchman had gone mad, in fact; had killed with the knotted-up bones of his hands the girl who shared his bed, then drunk his own death in a glass of whisky spoilt by the worst-smelling substance that Bruno had yet encountered in his long life among men and their remarkable vocabulary of stenches. Whisky had a stench of its own, but it was one that Bruno during the later time of his tenure with le Colonel had learned to appreciate. (It had been ages now since anyone had offered whisky to Bruno. The boy and his family never drank it at all, and though he had often detected its acrid flavour on the breath and clothing of Poor Reggie, he had never actually seen Poor Reggie with a glass or bottle of the stuff in his hand.) Le Colonel had his bouts of madness, too, silent, lasting glooms into which he sank so far that his songlessness Bruno experienced as a kind of sorrow, though it was nothing like the sorrow that he felt now, having lost his boy, Linus, who sang in secret, to Bruno alone.

It was one of Linus's old songs, the train song, that was driving Kalb mad, in a way Bruno did not entirely understand but which he appreciated and, it must be admitted, even encouraged. Kalb would come to stand before Bruno on his perch, with a sheet of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other, and beg him to sing the train song, the song of the long rolling cars. The room was filled with sheets of paper that the man had covered with claw marks, marks that Bruno understood to represent, in a manner whose principles he grasped but had never learned to master, the elements, simple and infectious, of the train song. Sometimes when the man left the room they shared, he would return with a small blue bundle of folded paper, which he tore open as if it were food and voided hungrily of its contents. Invariably and to Bruno's bemused annoyance these contents turned out to be yet another sheet of little marks. And then the pleas and threats would begin again.

The man was standing there now, shoeless, shirtless, with just such a torn blue sheet of claw marks in his hand, muttering. He had come in not long before, breathing heavily from his climb up the steps of the high room, and exuding powerfully his characteristic smell of murdered and boiled bird.

'The routing prefix,' he kept saying to himself, bitterly, in the language of the boy and his family. This man could also speak in the language of Poor Reggie and his family, and once there had been a visitor – their single visitor – with whom the madman had easily conversed in the language of Wierzbicka, whose memory Bruno would always reverence, because it was Wierzbicka the sad-voiced little tailor who had sold Bruno to the boy's family, in a transfer that Bruno had experienced, without quite knowing it at the time but thereafter retrospectively and certainly since losing Linus, as the sense and fulfilment of his long life's pointless wanderings.

'There is no fucking prefix,' Kalb said. He lowered the sheet of blue paper and fixed his madman's gaze on Bruno. Bruno set his head to an angle that, among his own kind, would have been understood as an eloquent expression of sardonic intransigence, and waited.

'How about some letters, for a change?' the man said. 'Don't you know any letters?'

Letters was in fact a concept that he grasped, or at any rate one that he recognized; it was the name of the bright bundles of paper that men ripped open so ravenously and watched so hopelessly with their darting white eyes.

'Alphabet?' Kalb tried. 'A-B-C?'

Bruno held his head steady, but his pulse quickened at the sound. He was fond of alphabets; they were intensely pleasurable to sing. He remembered Linus singing his alphabet, in the tiny errant voice of his first vocalizations. The memory was poignant, and the urge to repeat his ABC bubbled and rose in Bruno until it nearly overwhelmed him, until his claws ached for the give of the boy's slim shoulder. But he remained silent.

The man blinked, breathing steadily, angrily, through his soft pale beak.

'Come on,' he said. He bared his teeth. 'Please. Please.'

The alphabet song swelled and billowed, distending Bruno's breast. As was true of all his kind there was a raw place somewhere, inside him, which singing pressed against in a way that felt very good. If he sang the alphabet song for the man, the rawness would diminish. If he sang the train song, which had lingered far longer and more vividly in his mind than any of the thousand other songs he could sing, for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy's Mama and Papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them, then the rawness would be soothed. It was bliss to sing the train song. But the alphabet song would do. He could just sing a little of it; just the beginning. Surely that could be of no possible value to the man. He shined his staring left eye at Kalb, fighting him as he had been fighting him for weeks.

'There is no fucking prefix,' Bruno said.

The man let out a sharp soft whistle of breath, and raised his hand as if to strike the bird. Bruno had been struck before, several times over the years. He had been throttled and shaken and kicked. There were certain songs that provoked such responses in certain people, and one learned to avoid them, or in the case of a very clever bird like Bruno, to choose one's moments. It had been possible to torment le Colonel, for example, simply through the judicious repetition, in the presence of his wife, of certain choice remarks of le Colonels petite amie Mlle. Arnaud.

He raised one claw to ward off the blow. He prepared to snatch a moist chunk of flesh from the man's hand. But instead of hitting him the man turned away, and went to lie down on the bed. This was a welcome development; for if the man fell asleep, then Bruno could permit himself to sing the alphabet song, and also the train song, which he sang, of course, in the boy's secret voice, just as the boy had sung it to him, standing in the window at the back of Herr Obergruppenfuhrers house, overlooking the railroad tracks, watching the endless trains rolling off to the place where the sun came up out of the ground every day, each piece of the train bearing the special claw marks that were the interminable lyrics of the train song. Because Kalb seemed to want so badly to hear the train song, Bruno was careful now only to sing it when the man was asleep, with the instinctive and deliberate perversity that was among the virtues most highly prized by his kind. The sound of the train song, arising in the middle of the night, would jar the man from his slumber, send him scrabbling for his pencil and pad. When at last he was awake, sitting in a circle of light from the lamp with pencil clutched in his fingers, then - of course - Bruno would leave off singing. Night after night, this performance was repeated. Bruno had seen men driven mad, beginning with that Dutchman on the island of Ferdinand Po, in the heat, with the endless humming of the cicadas. He knew how it was done..."

  • Michael Chabon, The final solution. 2005, London: Fourth Estate, 0007196024 (hbk) and 2006, London: Harper Perennial, 9780007196036 (pbk.)

    Julie Heyward said...

    Is the bird a (fictionally) real separate being or is it supposed to be sort of an extrenalized "other side" of the Kalb? Sort of a Poe-ish double? The example that comes to mind, William Wilson, isn't quite right, but it's sort of what I mean.

    Felix Grant said...

    Sorry about the delay in replying!

    As it happens, no ... but I like the idea, and it enriches my rereading.

    Bruno the parrot is a (real and separate) main character in the book; Kalb a secondary one who has stolen Bruno from the boy Linus.