|Mij pictured in Ring of Bright Water|
Today I have been rereading Ring of Bright Water, because it is another one of those mid-century animal books that I read when I was small that wrote itself into my abstract, fiction-inflected grip on the natural world.
It is a book that makes me feel crumpled and jarred now, two hundred pages of the author's nakedly self-obsessed pursuit of a pet worthy of his attentions, his loves and bereavements, the writing festooned with sexual projection and strange category struggles about the edges of personhood, neatly couched in stories about how otters are wont to get your furniture wet. Sadness and emptiness and loss and anxiety drive huge troughs through everything; Mij is missing, Mij's harness mercifully holds, it breaks, he is missing, he is found! he eats so ravenously he might choke, he is missing, he is found! he is missing, he is waiting for me in the kitchen ...
About halfway through the book Mij is killed by a roadman with a pick-head.
I could have killed him then as instinctively and with as little forethought as he had killed the creature I had brought so many thousands of miles, killed him quickly and treacherously, when he was expecting it no more than Mij had, so that the punishment would fit the crime.
An astonishing moral collision of Mij's death being all about Maxwell, all about instinct, and all about Mij's expectations, which are just Maxwell's all over again. An instinct that was crime.
In his grief he first acquires a ring-tailed lemur called Kiko, but she is too murderous. Then a bush-baby who is too boring, and moreover masturbates all the time. Then 'a baker's dozen of small, briliant tropical birds' to which he grudges the merit of being less insanitary than Kiko.
Eventually he goes back to Camusfeárna and the thought comes 'clear and undisguised' that the place is incomplete without an otter. His house, that is. He has to have an otter for the house. So he writes to a friend in Basra to have the Maʻdān get him an otter cub. With brutal offhandedness he tells us that all of 'a succession' of cubs brought to his friend die in the first few days, 'three of which'---all that are enumerated for they are all that matter---'were Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli'.
Finally one lives, but wouldn't you know it, he never gets the cub to England because revolution comes to Iraq before she can be put on a plane. Domage, lonely fellow lovers of adorably playful wildlife stolen-to-order to sleep in your bed. He never hears from his friend in Basra again because he was one of the tyrant's personal entourage.
So much else. I have written pages and pages of notes on things which have nothing to do with the things I thought I went to the book to find out.
It is no longer a book about otters for me.