Saturday, October 19, 2013

Of Love and Bears


She had no idea what animals were about. They were creatures. They were not human. She supposed that their functions were defined by the size, shape and complications of their brains. She supposed that they led dim, flickering inarticulate psychic lives as well.
Could a great novel — or even two — arise from a premise as improbable as an interspecies relationship between a human being and a bear? Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, which is about a bear who, by some fluke of vocal anatomy, not only speaks but plays a mean alto sax, has long been a favorite of mine, and now here, not new but new to me, is this brief, exquisite 1976 novel by the Canadian writer Marion Engel, who died in 1985 at the age of 51. Engel's novel centers on Lou, an archivist who is dispatched to spend a few months cataloging the library of a 19th-century eccentric who constructed and inhabited an octagonal folly on a remote island in northern Ontario. Dropped off on the island, she learns, to her surprise, that one of her responsibilities during her sojourn will be to tend to its only other inhabitant, a quite inarticulate tame bear who formerly belonged to the family that descended from the original founder. As spring turns into summer the bear becomes Lou's constant companion, and in time one thing leads to another...

The Bear looked out at New York City rocking past the taxi window. A stone jail with humans bunched at the major intersections. Ten million dazed and mortal beings hypnotized by love, work, hate, family and the past. What were the odds — the Bear asked himself, trying to be realistic — in all that multiplicity, on gaining sufficient purchase on real freedom? Looking out at this sampling of the millions is just the thing to convince me that I have no meaning and no chance. What could it possibly matter if one more or less creature toots on a horn?
Rafi Zabor's novel is told from the point of view of the Bear, as he is called throughout. It's a far more ambitious, sprawling book, in which romance (with human women, largely, though the Bear will occasionally dally with ordinary ursines) is a relatively minor element, secondary to the art and metaphysics of jazz and the mysteries of being. (If you're curious about the mechanics of bear-human copulation, though, Zabor's your man.) One of the amusing things about The Bear Comes Home is that the human characters, at least the musicians who are hip, by and large don't much care that the Bear is a bear, and there are some very droll set-pieces of him sitting in with other jazz musicians. It is, thus far, Zabor's only novel, discounting his unsatisfying 2005 autobiographical narrative I, Wabenzi.

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