Between the Pages of Perestroika in Paris: or, how Ysengrimus comes to Play

Perestroika in Paris (Penguin, 2020) by Jane Smiley is a charming novel about a racehorse who lives her stable one night and moves herself to Paris. Language, the discussion of humans actions from the animal perspective and the discourse between the various animals (horse, dog, ras, ducks, crow, etc…) of this novel brings a level of child-like peace to deep questions of life and death.

The animals work through anxieties of death and complications of what it means to belong and exist in a changing world, with people, and with other animals.

If you are looking for a relaxing, charming, read that also tickles the mind with deeper thoughts on life and existence, then check out Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris.

As I finished this novel recently, I started to think about why and how animals can so often bring out more of our humanity. Not only in our existence with pets and nature—the sublime sight of a grizzly bear, the deep sigh of a resting retriever— but also in how we use them in literature and popular culture to work through anxieties, questions of life, and death.

Considering the setting of Perestroika in Paris, I thought of Ysengrimus (Jill Mann, Dumbarton Oaks translation edition, 2013), the 12th-century Latin poem about the wolf Ysengrimus, which introduced the character Renard the fox, the trickster in contrast to the apex predator. The moral, political, and religious commentary anthropomorphized through animals created a new satirical genre that us moderns find familiar through other spheres of popular culture. Granted, most anthropomorphized animals are in children’s media but there are still adult media examples since the twentieth century: Looney Tunes (Warner Bros.) or Family Guy’s Brian Griffin (Fox).

Why did/do people resonate with the humour of the Looney Tunes Road Runner outsmarting the Coyote? Tweety Bird undermining Sylvester the Cat? Or connect with the frustrations and very human failings of Brian as he watches Peter, his owner, stumble through life?

Animals can voice what humans can’t. We use them as an avatar. We can ventriloquize our frustrations over societal issues with animals without fear of retribution. We can laugh at them without fear of being laughed at ourselves.

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