Hoof and Claw

Ruth Brandt, Hassan’s Zoo (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021)

David Hartley, Pigskin (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021)

I love a good animal story.

Animals were possibly the first subjects of fiction. We know they were the first subject of art.

Their strange familiarity, like us and not like us, force us to imagine; to leap across the abyss where facts fall away and land on the firm ground of narrative.

Two new standalone short stories from Manchester’s Fly on the Wall Press explore the possibilities of animals in brave new ways.

The first, David Hartley’s Pigskin, is a curious farmyard parable about a pig with bacon for skin.

Ruth Brandt’s story, Hassan’s Zoo, is set during the invasion of Iraq, as the zoo-keeper, Hassan, tries desperately to keep his few surviving animals alive.

Both are part of the Fly on the Wall Shorts series: pamphlet-length books with eye-catching covers and striking subject matters. They work on their own, or else as samplers for the full-length collections that are also forthcoming from the press.

Hartley’s collection, Fauna, is coming out in September, while Brandt has one due in November.

Of the two stories, Hartley’s is certainly the most original. His previous collection, Spiderseed (2016), already trod Aesopian ground, with neat flash fictions, illustrated, bringing to live spiders and beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Here we find him pushing things further. Pigskin is eerie at first, then disgusting, then outright horrifying. The horror, brilliantly, lies in the story’s uncertain relationship with allegory.

When we first meet the pig with bacon for skin, all the other animals crowd around asking for a bite. It’s a funny moment. A light mood is set.

But then we meet more unsettling creatures. The chickens run around, dropping breadcrumbs from their deep-fried flanks. A cow crawls from the barn, its skin made of handbag leather, glue leaking out between stitching before it finally bursts.

The animals start rotting. Only the pig refuses to cooperate. He refuses to learn the human tongue and refuses to eat his fellow animals. His brain might be pork and his heart black pudding, but he is still Pig.

The tale goes on to relate Pig’s showdown with humanity. It is implied that they are responsible for these changes, and yet we never see the changes occur.

It is this uncertainty that lifts Pigskin above the level of a mere allegory (humans only see animals as consumable goods) and turns it into something deeply unsettling. Like Naked Lunch, you can see that it has a message, but the message isn’t clear enough to hide the horror.

To compare it to its clearest predecessor, Animal Farm; Orwell’s novel is at its best, I believe, when we read it as a universal tale of revolutionary hopes betrayed. It is at its weakest when it’s merely acting out real life events but with pigs in place of people. That’s not allegory; that’s caricature.

Hartley never lets us slip back into caricature, or else, when he does, he only does so in order to rip those expectations away within the space of a few lines.

The ducks with crispy skin, sweating hoi sin sauce, might sound like a PETA cartoon, but then they turn to us. They speak. We smell the oil.

The book is past an allegory, but where it’s gone to, I’m still not sure. It’s a truly innovative work.

Brandt’s story, Hassan’s Zoo, is more realist. And yet its animals, silent and scared, are equally, if not more potent symbolically for all their concrete materiality.

Hassan is the zookeeper at an Iraqi zoo, probably Baghdad, tasked with the impossible job of caring for the animals in the midst of America’s “shock and awe” invasion.

Most animals, we learn, are already dead. Many escaped and were shot by the Iraqi military. Many were stolen by starving civilians and eaten.

Only the tiger, Kesari, has survived throughout without problems. It is to Kesari in particular that Hassan pays his daily attentions. He provides what little food he can – often other zoo animals, killed in the bombing – and water from the nearby canal.

When the Americans arrive we witness a brief moment of respite, and yet, like so much of that ill-omened occupation, the peace is only momentary, and soon leads to even worse catastrophes than before.

Brandt’s animals, confused and terrified, embody for us both innocence and victimhood. No human can ever be the perfect victim, and it was by only by presenting Iraqis as victims in need of rescue that the Americans could proceed with their invasion.

The victim is a creature of pure passivity, and humans are rarely passive.

But animals, so like humans and yet so other, can provide us with something approximating innocence. The eye that sees but doesn’t comprehend. The mind unburdened by ideology. Pure nature, beautiful and ferocious, often cruel but never corrupt.

As with Hartley, Brandt never locks tight her allegory. The animals aren’t the Iraqi people, trembling in their iron cages, as much as they might reflect a common plight.

Instead, they are something approximating the pure witnesses, and it is Hassan who must protect them, as best he might, and in spite of the threat both they, and those that would kill them, pose to himself.

Brandt’s story is shorter than Hartley’s, and is followed by another short, “A Village in Winter”. A childhood tale about “Matt the Frost”, it’s a perfect little snowflake at only four pages long; unique and glimmering.

Fly on the Wall Press continues to be one of Manchester’s most innovative small press publishers. These are two excellent pieces of writing, important works in themselves and promising more to come as well.

Joe Darlington

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