Friday, August 3, 2012

Don't call him Ishmael: Carol Birch's JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE

Call him . . . Jaffy. Like the hero of Moby Dick, he lives to tell his tale. It's a tale that nods toward Melville's great, frustrating work: there's a whaling vessel, a quest for a beast, a disaster at sea, and a shattering sense of human smallness in the face of infinities of distance and time. There's even mention of the whaleship Essex, whose tale informed Melville's work. However, British author Birch is up to more than than tackling themes from a preceding novel.

Jamrach's Menagerie takes its start in history, not fiction, and the true story of a small English boy snatched up by a tiger he aimed to pet; the boy was rescued by Charles Jamrach, a 19th-c. purveyor of rare animals. This much is so, though Birch takes that boy, whom she names Jaffy, and puts him to work for Jamrach, which leads to a mission to locate and bring back a (Komodo) dragon. Birch gives Jaffy a voice that's a long way from Ishmael—who simply sounds like Melville. Jaffy sounds like a working-class lad, rough-edged and full of slang, but he also provides vivid descriptions of his adventures, all with a lyrical, evocative tone that lets us see the lad's developing, wondering soul.

For me, the book is about how we take memories and use them to construct some coherent sense of who we are. Jaffy never truly leaves the mouth of the tiger, and all of us, it seems, live in the tiger's mouth. Jaffy's immersion in that key experience sets the stage for every other experience, as his early encounters with animals, with whom he feels a strange sympathy, mirror his encounters with people, whose images and actions he labors diligently to maintain and honor. Why does he survive the tiger's embrace? Why do any of us survive anything, and why do others not? Though it may all be down to randomness, still, as Dr. Rieux pronounces in Camus's The Plague, all we have in our memories of those we've encountered. For Jaffy, this recollection and reconstruction of the past is a sacred task that allows one to endure and even love the present moment and all those to come.

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