They have lost themselves but not their ambitions

Matt Haig, The Humans. Canongate paperback, 2014.

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano, so I thought I’d better do something about this. For my birthday, among the books I asked for from family friends, was his Occupation Trilogy. Last week I read the first novel in that trilogy: La Place de l’Étoile. I found it a bit of a struggle, but might write about it here soon.

I craved something less dark and serious over the weekend, so devoured Matt Haig’s The Humans, first published two years ago, in two binges. At first I thought it too slight to merit a post here, but I’ve done some thinking and online digging and have changed my mind.

As I read it I thought it rather derivative. It’s about a highly advanced alien race – so advanced they have learnt, through the mastery of higher mathematics, to become immortal, to have almost magical powers (they can revive the dead, for example, or heal wounds instantly simply by thinking themselves better) – who send one of their own to earth in order to prevent a mathematical discovery by a Cambridge maths professor (named Andrew Martin) accidentally destabilising the human race, and possibly the universe. As the novel starts they seem already to have killed Martin; our protagonist, the alien, has assumed his bodily form and begun his mission – to seek out and destroy anyone to whom he might have divulged his secret discovery.

After a few pages I was thinking this reminds me of numerous sci-fi narratives: Mork and Mindy, the Robin Williams vehicle from the seventies in which another naïve, largely well-meaning alien struggles comically to understand the peculiarities and defects of a flawed human race, while reporting back to another increasingly alarmed host planet (‘Mork calling Orson’) that he’s beginning, like our protagonist ‘Andrew Martin’ here, to find it rather endearing. As his masters see it he is, like Mork, becoming ‘corrupted’ or impure by contact. Also like Mork he has a repertoire of super-powers (like the capacity to learn English after hearing or reading just 100 words; later he learns to communicate wordlessly with dogs).

Here’s ‘Andrew’ musing judgementally on humanity after watching the news on TV for the first time soon after moving in with Andrew’s wife, posing as her husband:

The term ‘news’ on Earth generally meant ‘news that directly affects humans’. There was, quite literally, nothing about the antelope or the sea-horse or the red-eared slider turtle or the other nine million species on the planet.

His relationship with the 40-year-old professor’s wife Isobel becomes, however, increasingly close as he learns to overcome his initial revulsion with the (to him) alien human form and to appreciate our human capacity to cope with our weaknesses and mortality, our vulnerability and our selfishness.

IMG_2983The Isobel plot resembles that of Starman, John Carpenter’s 1984 film in which Jeff Bridges, another innocent alien on earth, assumes the form of a young widow’s husband and befriends her. Like Haig’s ‘Andrew’ he revives the dead and has other special powers, and gradually falls in love with his ‘wife’. The book’s front cover points out other influences: David Bowie’s alien in Nick Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The other parallel that I found most obvious was the ‘Martian poetry’ of the kind instigated in 1979 by Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’- it’s surely no coincidence that human Andrew’s family name, Martin, is so close to ‘martian’. In this poem a Martian visits earth and describes (as ‘Andrew’ often does) with unintentional poignancy, wit and puzzled, oblique insight the mundane objects and rites of humans (books have ‘wings’ not pages, and rain ‘has the property of making colours darker’).

As I became engrossed with the progress of ‘Andrew Martin’ and his increasingly reluctant murder quest I began to realise that this was, like Raine’s poem, not really sci-fi at all. When I’d finished and read Haig’s short afterword it became apparent that it was about the defects and vulnerabilities of the human condition and psyche, and how we learn to come to terms with them. Here’s ‘Andrew’ on seeing Isobel fall in love with him, believing him to be her human husband: she was, he thinks,

someone who had lived enough to know that loving and being loved back was a hard thing to get right, but when you managed it you could see forever.

Haig explains that he’d suffered from depression in his early 20s, and I’ve since read how he struggled to deal not only with his condition, but with the stigma attached in our culture to those who have mental health problems (see for example this interview in the Guardian from Feb. this year, about his recently published book about depression, Reasons to Stay Alive). The Humans, then, is about alienation – that feeling experienced by the person with depression when everyone around them is ostensibly ‘normal’.

He’s particularly good on the Martins’ troubled teenage son, Gulliver, who’s experiencing that adolescent angst, anger and turmoil that most people in their mid-teens grapple with. The human Andrew had been a remote father and husband, self-absorbed and lacking emotional intelligence and empathy. He’d also been unfaithful to Isobel, whom he’d taken for granted to such an extent that he hadn’t registered her unhappiness when she sacrificed her own successful academic career to play the role of mother and housewife. He’d betrayed her and his son.

But the alien Andrew learns to recognise how important it is for humans to endure and overcome our deficiencies and confront our mortality in order to be able to love. Although this ‘love conquers all’ moral becomes a little sentimental at times and the lessons are spelt out a little portentously, as when ‘Andrew’ is kicked out by Isobel for guilelessly blurting out that he’d had sex with human Andrew’s student girlfriend, being naively unaware – a touch implausibly, given his ability to assimilate a culture’s communicative codes in seconds — of the concept of fidelity in marriage, and writes out a 97-point manifesto of aphoristic advice for Gulliver, who he’s also come to love, to help him survive being a teenager surrounded by treacherous adults. This seven-page document fills one whole chapter, and slips at times into whimsical mawkishness.

There’s a great deal of warmth, wit and charm in this novel, despite the derivative plot and tendency to overdo the moralising (‘Humans learn the errors of their ways’, insists ‘Andrew’ to another clone sent, like the Terminator, to complete the murderous job he’d abjured). Its heart is more honest and sincere, to my mind, than Curious Incident’s. It shares that novel’s witty take on the relations between mathematics and poetry, music and, ultimately, the transcendent beauty and purity of this troubled sphere that is the planet earth, and of the inhabitants of that sphere. There’s also a dark, almost metaphysical seriousness beneath the slight lyric charm, to paraphrase Eliot. The frequent doses of Emily Dickinson add to the experience.

Haig is very good on dogs, too. The Martins’ dog Newton is one of the best dogs I’ve encountered in fiction for some time. There’s a hilarious scene when alien Andrew learns about the delights of peanut butter with Newton.

 

 

Ancient dogs and caltrops

A Paean to Dogs in Ancient Times

Domesticated from earliest times in Greece and Italy as hunters of wild goats, deer and hares, dogs also served humans as guardians of the house and stock and as faithful companions (and bedwarmers).

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d'Ulysse 1884

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d’Ulysse 1884

The Greek hero Odysseus, after ten years of fighting in the Trojan wars, then ten more of struggles to return home, disguised himself as a beggar in order to surprise the suitors who were pressing his wife Penelope to accept one of them in his absence, presumed dead, while she resolutely cherished his memory. His dog, Argos, at an implausibly advanced age, fallen on evil times, neglected, ill, dozing on a manure heap, pricked up his ears when he heard a familiar step. He wagged his tail and dropped his ears when his master, incognito, had to pass by and ignore the overjoyed dog, who died. Heartbroken that he couldn’t acknowledge his dog’s greeting without betraying his identity, Odysseus wiped away a tear.

Homer and Hesiod mention sheepdogs and watchdogs: the Molossian Hound of Epirus, mastiff-like, Laconian, was the subject of this post of mine some time ago (the Jennings Dog in the British Museum, via Flaubert and Alcibiades).

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Xenophon (ca 430-354 BC), better known as a historian and philosopher, also wrote a treatise on the value of hunting as a suitable training for the soldier, for it makes men sober, pious and upright; in this Cynegetikos he extols the Castorian and the Vulpine hounds. The dispositions and ailments of hounds are delineated, and he describes how they should be trained and cared for. If the hare is caught at the first attempt, he says, the hounds should be brought back in to begin the search for another, he says. Psyche, Pluck, Spigot, Hilary, Yelp, Strongboy, Bodkin, all are suitable names, being short and indicative of hounds’ temperaments and qualities.

 

Caltrop

Caltrop

The boar requires a great deal more effort, and stronger nets. Not so much a pursuit as a fight. Dogs are often injured or killed in the boar hunt. Caltrops are useful in the chase, if unsportsmanlike. Darius used them against Alexander at the battle of Gaugamela, Persia. They served to slow the advances of horses, war elephants and humans. The soft feet of camels are particularly susceptible.

Iron caltrops have been found in Virginia that date from the seventeenth century.

In Italy, Umbrian hunters and sheepdogs were renowned as keen-nosed but lacking in courage. Salentine and shaggy-coated Etruscan dogs lacked speed but were keen-nosed.

Lucius Columella (born in Cádiz, ended up writing about agriculture – and a treatise on trees — in Italy, d. ca 70 AD) praises in his Res rustica the incorruptible dog, steadfast avenger or defender (rather poorly scanned translation into English here). The shepherd prefers a white dog because it is then unlikely to be mistaken at dawn or dusk for a wolf. The farmdog, on the other hand, has a more alarming appearance when approached by an evil man in daytime if he be black, with a sonorous bark and growl. At night, however, he can approach the crafty thief with greater security. The joints of its feet and its claws, which the Greeks call drakes, should be very large, like its head.

The Cú faoil or Irish wolfhound, as its name suggests, was used in the hunting of wolves Cuchalain better picbut also as a war dog. It has an ancient history. Names of kings and warriors often had the prefix ‘Cú’ as a sign that they were worthy of the loyalty of a brave hound. The Irish hero Cúchalain won his name by slaying, when he was a child, the ferocious guard dog of Culain, in self defence, and being taken on as replacement.

As early as 279 BC they may have fought alongside Celtic tribes that sacked Delphi. Caesar in the ‘Gallic Wars’ mentions them, and in 391 a Roman Consul named Symmachus writes about receiving as a gift seven ‘canes Scotici’ for fighting lions and bears, to the wonder of all Rome.

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

Associated with royalty, these dogs were highly prized. Around 210 King John gave Gelert to the Welsh prince Llewellyn. He is the subject of an ancient folktale motif that’s found in stories from around the world, and the 13C hagiographical legend of the Holy Greyhound, St Guinefort; sadly I’ve mislaid my copy of the superb study by Jean-Claude Schmitt of this bizarre cult, which survived into the 1930s in France, despite the opposition of the church. (The dog-headed saint, or Cynocephalos, is Christopher). In the legend this faithful hound was rashly killed by its owner, who believed the dog had mauled his son, when in fact it had bravely saved him from a serpent’s attack (or in some versions, a wolf’s). When he hears his son’s cries, he realises his mistake and buries the dog with great reverence. The grave became a pilgrimage site and was believed to benefit the health of children if taken there by their parents.

By the way, Lesbia’s sparrow was probably a bullfinch.

(All images are in the public domain)