Indian author Perumal Murugan’s magical ‘Story of a Goat’ shows animal stories aren’t just for kids
It’s easy to see this as the story of a promising individual crushed under a constrictive government laced with the injustices of caste, colorism and sexism.
Children’s literature has a long tradition of animal tales, including “Charlotte’s Web” and”The One and Only Ivan.” But adult literature, for the most part, has turned up its nose at such stories. Perumal Murugan happily bucks this trend with his latest, “The Story of a Goat” (Black Cat / Grove Atlantic, $16).
Still, that work found a wide audienceand was long-listed for last year’s National Book Award in Translated Literature.
Stung by the criticism, Murugan considered quitting literature. But, as he writes,“Pushing aside all the confusions, dilemmas and sorrows I had experienced so far, a great joy filled my being. The reason was Poonachi, the black goat.”
The title character of Murugan’s elegant new novel is indeed a joy. A gift from a supernatural figure, Poonachi bounds into the lives of an old farming couple. The runty goat barely survives infancy. But, once she does, she becomes an indelible part of the couple’s world, bringing glory and hardship in equal measure.
The story follows Poonachi as the kid reaches adulthood and fertility, when she has her own miracles to deliver.
With its unnamed farming couple and a sense that magic’s always glittering at the horizon, “The Story of a Goat” (translated from the original Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman) easily could be read as a fable. But Murugan’s marvelously observant narrative is equally interested in the visceral daily life of a farm creature:the difficulties of getting a baby goat to suckle when “she didn’t have the energy to butt the udder” andunflinching portrayals of the harshness inherent in the lives of animals raised for human consumption. This givesthe book a realism that makes Poonachi much more than a symbol.
“The Story of a Goat” has as much to say about human society as it does about the lot of a goat. Again and again, the red tape of bureaucrats interferes in the simple pleasures of pasture and open sky. The old couple must make long trips to get government tags in the ears of any goats that are born.
“Goats have horns, don’t they? Suppose they get a little angry and point them at the regime? Such goats have to be identified, right?”
When a goat is black, like Poonachi, “the officials would go on the alert immediately.”
It’s not hard to read Poonachi’s tale as that of a promising individual crushed under a constrictive government laced with the injustices of caste,colorism and sexism.
The greatest achievement of this remarkable novel is the empathy that adult readers will feel for a nonhuman creature. Through Poonachi’s tale, we’re reminded how much bonds us with the animal world.
Readers might well end up feeling that this charismatic young goat is, as the old woman in the novel puts it, “actually a daughter-in-law who has entered my home, a lady who has come to expand my family.”
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