Top 10 talking animals in books

From Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat to Franz Kafka’s ‘Ungeziefer’, linguistically gifted beasts have made for some of the most luminous characters in fiction

Animal characters in works of fiction have generally been used in a rather anthropomorphic way. This can be seen as a problem, though, and many say that reading animals as symbols of us reduces them, makes them smaller, steals their right to be seen as subjects who have their unique, distinctive way of existing. Others say that it’s not a problem at all because it’s not as if animals – even though they’re each different in shape and thought – will ever get to know what we write about them, how we place, use and interpret them and give them meaning through human filters.

Placing myself in the discussion as a writer of animal characters (as I am in my novel My Cat Yugoslavia) is extremely difficult. Does a writer of fiction that includes animal characters commit an act of theft? Can nature really be appropriated? Who does it belong to, and who gets to say what counts as “animal culture”? Is it scientists, biologists, scholars in humanities, people who have lived with animals, or no one? The question is exceptionally complex. However, it is interesting and most welcome, too, that we continue to discuss the rights of beings that are unarmed, incapable of defending themselves through language that’s not clearly understandable to us.

All that being said, here they come: my top 10 talking, zoomorphic animal characters.

1. Behemoth in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
This demonic beast, this marvellous shape-shifting creature, this sarcastic, vodka-loving cat, is one of the most iconic talking animals, and justifiably so. Behemoth, a member of an evil entourage led by Satan himself, will leave an everlasting mark on the reader. I promise you this. His whimsical, absurd and ingenious character inspired me tremendously when writing My Cat Yugoslavia.

2. The Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
This talking feline won’t terrify you with Behemoth’s cutthroat insults and deranged actions, but it will make you laugh just as copiously. Famous for its broad grin, it appears and disappears as it chooses, while tormenting Alice with philosophical statements and giving her advice that seems irrational. But that’s part of its alluring magic.

3. “Ungeziefer” in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a bug-like, monstrous vermin. A busy salesman who slavishly follows the rules, he immediately knows he’s in big trouble. While Gregor himself doesn’t seem to be bothered by his new clumsy shape and unsightly appearance, he’s rejected by his family and ends up suffering a terrible fate. There are many possible interpretations of the story. To me, it’s about how our battles and confrontations don’t necessarily make us stronger – sometimes they just make us weaker, sadder and more pathetic.

4. Maf in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
Frank Sinatra gave Mafia Honey, a Maltese terrier, to Monroe as a Christmas present in 1960. O’Hagan’s fourth novel follows the final years of the actor from the point of view of this singular pooch. This well-educated and articulate dog will not only give you a unique perspective on Monroe’s life, it will steal your heart away. He’s that charming and spot-on.

‘Some animals are more equal than others’ … a still from the 1954 animated film of Animal Farm.
‘Some animals are more equal than others’ … a still from the 1954 animated film of Animal Farm. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Halas/Batchelor

5. Napoleon and Snowball in Animal Farm by George Orwell
Napoleon and Snowball, two pigs greedy for power, start off as allies. As the story continues and violence proliferates, they become dedicated rivals. What the hatred and violence between them generates is simply more hate and violence. This novel feels more current than ever.

6. Bagheera in The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
This black panther is one of my favourite talking animals in children’s books because he’s just the coolest. In Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as in various adaptations of them, Bagheera is a real class act. He’s smart, reliable and thinks ahead, and on top of that he has perfect timing. Mowgli would be in terrible trouble without the awesome Bagheera. Shere Khan has nothing on him.

7. Red Peter in A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka
Here is an ape who has mastered the art of being a human being by leaving his “ape self” behind. After being captured on the Gold Coast he’s given two options: he can either live in a zoo or become a turn at a music hall. Red Peter chooses the latter, and adjusts to the highly oppressive and judgmental people around him. I guess sometimes it’s easier to adapt to being othered in various ways than to fight for the right to be seen and heard as an individual.

8. Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq
A young woman in her 20s lands a job at perfume counter. Soon after that, she understands that she’s expected to have sex with male customers. Then she starts gradually transforming into a sow. Darrieussecq’s debut novel – Truismes in the original French – was a massive success on publication in 1996. It offers one of the most distinctive and unique transformation stories of our time and explores questions of sexuality, identity and gender with much-needed insight and superb creativity.

9. The Cowardly Lion in
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum
I have great sympathy for the Cowardly Lion. He is expected to be brave, powerful and courageous. Instead, he is terribly scared of the world around him. What makes him adorable is that he’s so freaking sensitive and sentimental, and extremely self-conscious about it. To me, he is a symbol of self-hatred. I’m sure everyone who has been told that they can’t do something, that they should act in a certain fashion, that they are not good or smart or capable enough can relate. We become blind to our strengths when our weaknesses are brought up more frequently, when we begin to think that we don’t deserve more and feel shame for what we should be proud of.

10. Sharik or Comrade Sharikov in The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Overshadowed by The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s novella is an equally remarkable and momentous work of fiction. It tells the story of a wealthy and successful doctor who surgically implants human testicles and a pituitary gland into a stray dog, a mongrel he names Sharik. Sharik narrates the story until the surgery transforms him into something like a human being. Then the man/canine becomes Comrade Sharikov, a cat-killing nuisance who tortures and harasses virtually everyone in sight.

Pajtim Statovci

The GuardianTramp

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