Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Failure to communicate

I happened to be reading Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, a soon-to-be published book by Carl Safina, and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct at the same time I read Carolyn Parkhurst's 2003 novel The Dogs of Babel. Pinker quotes the tower of Babel story from the book of Genesis in his chapter, called "The Tower of Babel," about the incredible number of languages, many of them radically different from each other, spoken by human beings around the globe. Safina writes about how animals, without using words or speech as we know it, nevertheless manage to communicate amazingly complex messages to each other. Campbell's monkeys, for example, have one alarm call that means a leopard has been spotted in the distance and another that means the leopard is nearby. Other monkeys react very differently to the two distinct messages.

Parkhurst's novel has more to do with the communication between species, namely between humans and dogs. Paul Iverson is a linguist who comes home to find that his wife, Lexy, has fallen from the top of a tree and died. Was it an accident or suicide? Why would she have climbed a tree? The only witness was her dog, Lorelei. In his grief, Paul, a student of languages, determines to try to find a way for Lorelei to tell him what happened. His research gets him involved with an underground group of amateur scientists attempting to use surgical means to enable dogs to talk. One thing Lorelei is able to communicate to Paul is her extreme fear of these strange people.

Things get a bit weird, but fortunately Paul has his memories of his life with Lexy, a strange, tortured artist who specialized in masks, plus a bookcase in which she had apparently rearranged all the books just before her death. Might there be a message here more revealing than anything Lorelei might be able to communicate?

All three of these books are about communication, whether from one person to another, one animal to another or one species to another. Yet Parkhurst's novel is not just about what is said but also, perhaps more significantly, about what could be said but isn't.

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