Jonathan Cape, £12.99 Order for £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Taurus, By Joseph Smith
The world through a bull's eye
Wednesday 23 June 2010
Joseph Smith's first book, The Wolf, was the story of a forest wolf forced by a hunger and a cold winter to stray from its territory into the cultivated valley. In Taurus, Smith gives voice to another lone animal rich in symbolism: the bull.
Both books are narrated by the creature, setting themselves up as a kind of literary high-wire act – how far can the author conjure the animal's world without slipping into mawkishness and anthropomorphism?
Crucially, the best parts of both books deal with the animal's sense of its body and its environment: the way the bull manoeuvres itself inside its stall, or tests the posts of a fence with its horns, feeling the give of the wood in the earth. It is when the animals begin to interact with humans and other creatures that things take a turn for the worse...
The Wolf stayed largely in the natural world. That it ended in a strange dance of death between the wolf, two foxes and a swan trapped in a pool deep in a mountain cave gave it the feel of a mutated folk-tale. The bull, though, is a domesticated creature, and has known nothing beyond its barn and paddock, and the people who cage and feed him.
Sometimes Smith toys with animal fantasy, as when the daughter of the farm tries to set the bull free and her presence evokes memories of her caresses when she was a little girl, and it a calf. Animal pragmatism wins out, the bull ignores the open gate, and instead charges the girl, tossing her. "I turn quickly, flushed with feeling and happiness, curious to see what I have done and whether it will need beating down again."
There is a boy on the farm, too. As soon as the bull looks into his eyes and sees in them an image of the corrida – "the sunlight and shade, the colour of red wall and yellow earth, a man more like a bird than a man in bright colours" – then we know where the story is going to end. Not just in the bull ring, but in a world governed by myth and metaphor, where the bull is only ever a part of the human constellation. Picasso, you feel, would appreciate this grafting of man's desires into the body and mind of the animal, but not Hemingway, who would not have presumed to see men through bulls' eyes.
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