Thursday, 19 December 2013

MagnifiCat – an Animal Fantasy by Danielle de Valera, Old Tiger Books, 2013

Kindle Edition

It wasn’t until I reached the resolution of the crisis that drives this story that I realised why the characters had to be animals. Indeed, for the first three quarters of the book, though my attention was constantly drawn to the fact that they were cats, dogs, snakes, echidnas, rabbits and more, I kept visualising the characters as human. I saw Rupert, for example, as Finn Burridge (Arthur in The Paradise, ABC1 Saturday 7:30 pm) and Sylvia as Phyllida Law (Aunt Auriel in Kingdom, Saturday 9:30 pm). I visualised the whole as if in the cinema thinking that human characters would be totally credible – until I came to the bit where it becomes, in the Author’s own words, a fairy tale. No one would have trouble with the part of the story that dwells in hardship, but happy endings, that’s another matter. We don’t like to see happy humans!

Having said that, I do not mean to dismiss the last quarter of the book as “just a fairy tale”. Disney has much to answer for when it comes to how fairy tales are dismissed as kids’ stuff. They are actually the depositories (depositories, Mr Rabbit) of folk wisdom. Danielle de Valera’s #MagnifiCat is no exception. But I want to go further than that by saying that this book could be called The Book of Danielle, because, like another with a similar sounding name, The Book of Daniel, it is apocalyptic.

Like all important phenomena, the word Apocalypse and what it signifies, has suffered the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that everything turns to shit. Or, more classically, working systems break down because entropy increases. Contrary to popular opinion, an Apocalypse is not about bad things happening but a revelation of faith – which is why The Apocalypse of St John in the New Testament is called The Book of Revelation. If all you see is fire and brimstone, you missed the point. And so it is with Magnificat. If you look below the narrative you may catch a glimpse of Danielle de Valera’s faith.

Faith is not to be confused with belief. We readily accept that there is a difference between belief and knowledge. But what is faith? The intuitive answer is that faith is an instance of belief. But I want to suggest that faith is actually a form of knowledge. I can believe something that is true, but that true belief would not be knowledge unless properly justified. A false belief can never be properly justified and therefore cannot be knowledge. A true belief that is falsified by a single instance, however, is not necessarily a false belief. If I believe, for example, that all metal bars expand when heated, the discovery of a metal bar that does not expand when heated simply necessitates a couple of minor adjustments – drop one word and add another – for my belief to remain true – metal bars usually expand when heated. Faith is expressed as belief that undergoes adjustments over time. But unlike the belief about metal bars which can properly be justified and become knowledge by systematic empirical experimentation, faith is knowledge before it is a belief; it is existential knowledge which comes to be expressed as belief that changes over time. Faith withstands the most serious challenge to belief and is thereby properly justified as knowledge. I can believe or disbelieve in miracles and be right or wrong depending on whether miracles do or do not occur; but I can never know that miracles do or do not occur. Faith, on the other hand, which is usually thought of as believing, is firstly a radical un-belief – faith is un-convinced that things are as they seem. It is when faith attempts to answer the question, if what seems real is not real, what is real? that it expresses itself as belief which changes over time. You know… death is not the end of existence – that sort of thing … But what does not change is what faith knows to be true – things are not as they seem; existence is more than we observe. But I digress.

Apocalyptic writing celebrates the fact that despite all the troubles that assail us, we better than merely survive: we thrive in ways unseen to most other people. This is not to be confused with the Byronesque Dogma that if we believe that the Universe will look after us (another by-product of TSLT), we will find ourselves rolling in abundance – an assertion pitiful on the lips of someone on the dole but reprehensible in the mouths of the affluent. No, The Book of Daniel, and The Book of Revelation are not about people who don’t suffer. They are about people who know that their suffering does not define them and who, staring down the source of their suffering, know who they really are. 

As the first fourteen chapters of Magnificat show, Danielle de Valera is no stranger to suffering. She knows poverty as a sister. This is evident in the way she writes about poverty. Her characters engage with it with a complete lack of resentment. When Claude loses his job it never occurs to him to think, let alone say out aloud, “What about me? It isn’t fair!” Intriguingly, Sylvia reads Schopenhauer. Why not Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre, both of whom were champions of the kind of freedom that is to be found in taking responsibility for the quality of one’s existence? Schopenhauer was the first western philosopher to “get” that “life is suffering” and all that follows from that in the thought of the Buddha. So why not just have Sylvia chanting the mantras so familiar in the geographic location in which her story is set? Is it because suffering is not answered, by a Westerner, by putting on the livery of the Buddha but by engaging with it as a Westerner – hence her interest in Schopenhauer? 

And, of course, the title of the book is not just a pun. The Magnificat is the definitive statement of faith in the mouth of Mary, the mother of Jesus and includes the words: “He fills the starving with good things; send the rich away empty.” The story in which people are constantly on the verge of hunger, ends with a feast. But wait. Isn’t it the rich who put the show on? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not empty – living their eleventh century fantasy. 

There are depths to plum in this apparently simple tale. I will end by alluding to one of them. Is there a reason why the characters that are cats or dogs are not, say, possums or sheep or... whatever? And why are rabbits the snobs, rather than, say, camels with their haughty heads held high looking askance at the world? One thing’s for sure, it’s not a scheme that encodes references to Australian artists, otherwise Rupert would be a Bunny.

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