The Bestiary is one of those books that makes me want to take whoever wrote the back-cover copy outside and have stern words with them for making it sound far more interesting than it turned out to be. Take this:
Xeno turns his early fascination with animals into a personal obsession: his search for the Caravan Bestiary. This medieval text, lost for eight hundred years, supposedly details the animals not granted passage on the Ark—griffins, hippogriffs, manticores, and basilisks—the vanished remnants of a lost world sometimes glimpsed in the shadowy recesses of our own.
A strange, lost bestiary! A lifelong search for it!
The problem is that you really need to pay attention to this sentence:
The Bestiary is ultimately a tale of heartbreak and redemption.
This is what the book is actually about: a young man’s inner journey guided by his quest for the bestiary. And this might have worked, if Xeno Atlas was a remotely interesting man.
There are certainly interesting moments in his life. The death of his grandmother, very early in the book, is one.
“He said there are other animals like that,” she went on. “‘The lost animals,’ he called them, that didn’t make it onto the ark at the time of the Great Flood. One day these animals are gonna be discovered, and all of their stories told, and the great mysteries will come clear.” She closed her eyes. “That panther promised me that soon my spirit’s gonna move on. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t live in heaven – forget all that – but inside another creature on earth. Otherwise, it becomes a lost soul, like one of those seabirds that tries to fly to the moon but instead falls into what my grandmother Silvana called il mare di tempo – the sea of time – and never returns. When I was a girl, and we went to Messina, we waited in the dunes all night for a look at those birds. I don’t have to wait long now, Xeno, no matter where I’m going.”
“Don’t say that, Grandma.” I choked back tears, but she was happy with the thought, and she pulled me close and kissed me.
That last night, I was eating a sandwich in the kitchen when I head a glass break in her room. Then Re started barking. Evgénia had just stepped out the front door, on her way home, and I cried out to her as I raced down the hall.
At my grandmother’s door, I stopped cold. Her bed was empty. Re was barking at the window, where the red fox I had seen years before was slipping out onto the fire escape, into the snow.
I turned to Evgénia as she reached my side, and when I looked back into the room, the fox was gone and my grandmother was lying in bed.
She opens up the possibility of a world far bigger and more magical than Xeno previously perceived.
A short while later, a teacher’s offhand remark sends Xeno to the school library, where he begins his lifelong interest in bestiaries, specifically the lost Caravan Bestiary. Guided by this teacher, people met later in life and various fortunate selections of reading materials, Xeno fills gaps in the bestiary’s history and brings forward the date of its disappearance from the historical record.
Where he is researching the bestiary, I loved the book.
Aristotle was intrigued by fantastical animals, and while completing his Anamalia, wrote a book about them, Peri Mysterion (“Mysteries”), which inspired the first compilers of the Caravan Bestiary. The original disappeared in the fire at the Great Library, but traces of it were said to have survived. Hoping to find them, I turned to the chroniclers who annotated the Animalia and all of Aristotle’s other works. Most of these medieval texts were only available on microfiche; the originals were in Europe. In one of the most obscure, least promising tracts, written in 1382 by a prelate from Languedoc named Guy Pelletier, I stumbled on the crucial clue that marked the real starting point of my search for the Caravan Bestiary.
Among the books I found right away were: Nicholas of Cusa and Roman Cosmology by Michael Brox; The Illuminated Books of the Alpine Monasteries and Guillaume Heinault & Henri Metz: The Techniques of Illumination by Madame Faville; and a bizarre monograph by Niccolo Cava entitled Empedocles’s Theory of Evolution. Of course only Madame Faville’s books had any relation to the Caravan Bestiary (I learned about the monks’ writing instruments, vellum, and methods of transcription), though she never mentions it specifically. It was more difficult to track down some early essays by Cava and Faville that pertained directly to the bestiary, presenting their respective theories about sources that predated Physiologus. For Cava, it was obscure chroniclers like Tatian, a second-century heretic whose animal catalog has disappeared, and Ctesias the Cnydian, court doctor to King Artaxeises II in the fifth century B.C., who set out to write a treatise on falconry and ending up cataloging the animals of Central Asia. Madame Faville was also intrigued by Horapollo, a fifth-century A.D. Egyptian who at various times was a grammarian, clairvoyant, spy, and high priest in the great Temple of Isis. In Book II of his famous study of hieroglyphics, Hieroglyphica, he wrote eighty-six chapters on animals that became the European template for allegorizing animals.
Isn’t it marvellous? :3
The problem is that the bestiary ends up not being the most important thing. That honour goes to Xeno’s life – and, to borrow a friend’s excellent phrasing, it is a very frictionless one. Losing a beloved grandmother and having an emotionally distant father (and no mother, as she died in childbirth for maxmimum angst) are not easy experiences for a child, and it is as a child that Xeno is most relatable. But as a student and an adult, he lives a surprisingly easy life.
His wealthy, distant father sends him money for university. He serves in Vietnam and gets shot at for a while, but he doesn’t seem to have any lingering effects. (Naturally, it is a Vietnam narrative with only American perspectives, EUGH FUCK OFF.) He gets sent to Hawai’i to recuperate, meets his retired teacher, and accidentally finds a book that gives him a clue towards the Caravan Bestiary’s location. Most of his research is like this. Someone digs up information for him or he happens to read the right book. While writing about the genuine academic slog would not necessarily make for a good read, this bypasses the stress and strain of research in favour of other people’s work and some lovely coincidences; the text does mention the amount of reading Xeno must do in-between making discoveries, but I never got the impression that his research stressed or upset him in any particularly serious way. Later on he inherits a whole ship, saves some animals for his girlfriend and then sails off for the Aegean to follow the Bestiary’s trail personally.
Really? I’m really meant to care about this guy’s life? Oh, he feels uncomfortable about his father handing him money; oh, he angsts a lot. But there is so little genuine strife. Xeno doesn’t really have to work for anything in his life; it drifts away or gets handed to him regardless of what he does. Nor does he ever seem to have strong, tangible emotions. He sits on the page, listless and uninteresting.
(Compare to, say, Onyesonwu of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, who puts herself through genital mutilation in order to make friends and has to continually fight to get the training and respect she deserves. There are some happy coincidences along her journey, but damn, that woman has to fight for so much; there is such a difference between a character like her and a drifting, easily treated character like Xeno.)
I do love how The Bestiary treats the fantastical as part of reality; it is a book suffused in myth, from an offhand mention of a fox being able to leave tracks in one direction while travelling in another, to people turning into animals. It tries, it really does, to be wonderful.
But it keeps being tripped up by Xeno, who – even at the very end, an ending that I otherwise liked for its balance of realism and result – is dull as concrete. Here are the final lines of the book:
Later, poised to snap the last shot in my camera, I was puzzled to find it had already been taken. When the film was developed, there were all the photographs of the mural and then one of Lena and me in the sea, shot from the beach. Everything was as I remembered it: the clear water, the heavy clouds, her shining hair. We remained in the sea the rest of the afternoon, naked, weightless, riding the swell, before swimming in at twilight and returning to the dock where the launch was waiting, the pilot at the wheel, his cap pulled low, his cigarette glowing when he raised it to his lips.
This is it. This is, quite literally, the snapshot we are meant to have of Xeno after the book is complete: a distant face bobbing the sea. Well, it’s appropriate for him. Not, however, for what is supposed to be an intensely personal quest. I wanted to feel something more than his vague, distant contentment.