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Arts: The elephant woman

Animal Farm, Watership Down, The Jungle Book... writers normally use animals in fiction to say something about human nature. In her ambitious novel about elephants, however, Barbara Gowdy is trying to tell us about them. By Rachel Halliburton
Once they put a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, that was it. As well as waking humanity up to sex, lies, and all the rest, this slithery embodiment of evil started a whole genre of literature in which chimpanzees could have PhDs, elephants could go to crocodiles for nose- jobs, and pigs could drink whisky and play cards. There is no doubt that in both Eastern and Western cultures, animals have proved an extraordinary literary device by which humans can hold up a tellingly distorting mirror to their own natures. They have been worshipped and feared in mystical texts, dressed up and sent up in satirical works, and reduced to the cute and cuddly for children all over the world.

Barbara Gowdy's novel, The White Bone, therefore walks on to a stage already crowded with characters growling, howling, and meowing for attention. Take a trip back to second century Rome, and you will come across Apuleius's The Golden Ass, an early novel in which the central character is changed into an ass through experimenting with magical ointments. The novel - which is seen by some as an allegory for the way in which the soul can be degraded through the senses - ends with his restoration to human form by the eastern goddess, Isis.

In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift took a satirical side-swipe at society by comparing it unfavourably with the enlightened rational horses called the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels. Humans were teased by the vision of a society in which creatures with manes and tails had the upper hoof on sensitivity and articulacy: the humans themselves were more uncomfortably similar to the brutish, ape-like Yahoos.

Fast forward to this century, and you are overwhelmed by authors who have decided to say it with grunts, oinks, and squeaks. Kipling's Just So Stories and The Jungle Book are joined by C S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Richard Adams's Watership Down, and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty in a menagerie full of children's books, while Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Orwell's Animal Farm stand out as infamous adult classics.

Will Self's late-century anthropomorphic antics in Great Apes have fast been followed by such books as John Berger's novel about homelessness from a dog's perspective (King: a Street Story), Paul Auster's novel about prejudice from a dog's perspective (Timbuktu), and now we have Gowdy's book, The White Bone. But there is an important difference with this latter work. Despite their manifest diversity, all the other books on the list dance backwards and forwards over the boundaries between human and animal identity to say something aboutmankind. George Orwell may have drawn deeply on several animals' characteristics to create his characters for Animal Farm, but did anyone ever mistake their campaign for equality for a bid for vegetarianism?

And in Will Self's joyful linguistic caper through his chimp society, insights on chimps are simply used to tease readers with reflections of their pretentious selves in these hairy, bottom-obsessed individuals: as in the wonderful moment when eminent psychologist Dr Zack Busner "checked his arsehole once more in the hall mirror, then let himself out the front door."

It can be fairly concluded, then, that writers usually exploit animals' difference merely to conform them to our image. It should consequently come as no surprise to someone who has read any of Barbara Gowdy's prize- winning work that she has decided not to take this course. Gowdy's trademark has become her sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of those who are normally sidelined in society as "freakish" or "weird". In her collection of short stories, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story gives a compelling account of a beautiful young necrophiliac, and of her arousal by the "energy" of disintegrating corpses that makes her ultimately unable to take any relationship with living men seriously.

In The White Bone, Gowdy has gone further outside society by taking the audacious step of creating a narrative about elephants that avoids anthropomorphism. In the book, the visionary Mud, telepathic Date-Bed and intuitive Tall- Time join tribes of elephants that traverse a landscape filled with their own symbolism, looking for food, engaging in mating rituals, and seeking a refuge from ivory poachers. Gowdy appreciates the catch 22 that making a narrative comprehensible to our mentality automatically humanises it. Despite such limitations, she argues that the book is as elephant-centric as possible.

However, some people might argue that by, for instance, creating a cosmology for the elephants in which "She", the mother of all elephants, sits in a sky in opposition to Rogue, the malevolent creator of all other animals except humans, Gowdy has gone way beyond her brief. This is an over-cynical response, according to the author, who spent more than a year scientifically researching the ways in which elephants communicate, form social groups, and deal with trauma.

She says: "Everything my elephants do is what they would do were you watching a documentary. In my writing I simply invest that behaviour with very high intentions." Part of Gowdy's reason for homing in on elephants lies in her fascination with their subtle, almost undetectable forms of communication. It was only 10 years ago when it was discovered that more than two-thirds of elephants' "conversations" are transmitted through infrasonic rumbles. Characters with sensitive hearing recur throughout Gowdy's novels, a fact perhaps attributable to her own condition of hyperacusis. She explains: "In its extreme forms, a comb running through your hair would sound like a [Boeing] 747 taking off. I think I have a minor form of it - even when I'm wearing earplugs I still seem to hear noises three hotels away."

John Donne, who presumably had far less contact with elephants than Gowdy has, wrote in the early 17th century about: "Nature's great masterpiece, the elephant The only harmless great thing." Gowdy's own extensive research backs up the beasts' gentle image. She observes that "They mourn their dead. They are incredibly close to each other. They will also chase a lion from a zebra kill - and in Darwinian terms, that makes absolutely no sense. And when they're being chased by a helicopter and one of them's being shot at with tranquillizer darts, if that elephant falls, the others go back and help - even the younger ones."

Humans do not come off well in this novel, even though they are not being attacked by satirical barbs. Gowdy portrays the destructive hell that ivory poachers create among elephants with a savagely dark poetry, filtering her views through the perceptions of central characters Mud, Date-Bed and Tall-Time.

She argues that the gap between her portrait of the elephants' mentalities and our understanding of such processes is necessary, saying: "There's a wonderful quote by a neurologist which is that if the brain was simple enough for us to understand, we'd be too simple to understand it - so it makes sense that if the workings of the natural world could be understood it would also be too simple." There is one chilling way, however, in which we know for certain that these animals never forget - elephants who have seen their mothers being slaughtered wake up screaming for the rest of their lives.