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David Herman

The Lost Notebooks of Black Beauty

Zauberpferde by Margaret Hofheinz-Döring David Herman The Lost Notebooks of Black Beauty
Zauberpferde by Margaret Hofheinz-Döring

1. There are both advantages and disadvantages to allowing my testimony to be transcribed as if I were a simple-minded creature, able to understand only part of what is discussed (and done) by the humans around me.

1.1. The advantages: my account will be accessible to a wide audience, touching readers with various backgrounds and levels of education; children will be able to engage with the story and thereby encounter, early on, discourse reflecting the individuality and importance of other animals; and no one will be put off by a narrator who, because he seems to be presenting himself as more knowledgeable than and morally superior to his audience, fails to convince or even establish trust.

1.2. The disadvantages: my powers of expression (such as they are in translation) will be curtailed by the persona I project; the sharp edge of critique may likewise be blunted, or at least sheathed in an alien rhetoric; and my broader exposé of human-animal relationships, including the link between the institution of chattel slavery and the treatment of animals as fungible possessions, will be relegated to the category of children’s literature—as if the nexus between slaves-viewed-as-animals and animals-viewed-as-slaves were not a concern that cuts across all human age categories.

1.3. All things considered, however, the advantages of taking on the role of a plain-spoken narrator seem to me to outweigh the disadvantages. Better to suggest than stipulate.

2. As previously hinted, equine phenomenology can only be partly captured via cross-species translations. How to express, exactly, the blazing, choking, cacophonous blur of a predator (whether human or nonhuman) in ocular-olfactory-auditory space, or the edgeless wash of grass, rain, and wind as it slides across the twilit world of an autumn dusk? Rather than attempting a full translation in such contexts, it is probably advisable to present embodied experiences—the taste of food, feelings of physical comfort or pain, moments of emotional transcendence or dread—as if the body-mind having them were, more or less, human.

3. It will also help my readers follow the story arc and strengthen their affective ties to the protagonist if my account mirrors human-type (auto)biographies.

3.1. The account will thus have to gloss over salient aspects of horses’ lives—patterns of movement, predilections, premonitions—to create chunks of story that its readers will recognize as the extended periods, recurrent episodes, and sudden happenings that belong to their own world-picture. These may include, for example, the time of childhood or youth, the occasional offering of maternal advice, and the onset of illness or injury. Also needed are the larger plot structures expected by the audience. The protagonist will be tested (and nearly done in) by fortune’s hard knocks, have coincidental, future-shaping encounters with characters from the past, and bear up under difficult circumstances in such a way that his suffering demands not only relief but also redemption, in some form or fashion.

3.2. But not only that. It will be possible to broaden the appeal, and deepen the resonance, of my tale by drawing on shadow stories that run parallel with it.

3.2.1. Slave narratives, as already noted, afford shadow stories of this sort. For example, because of the way animals of my kind are bought and sold at market, I discovered only after the fact that I shared a parent with a horse whose death (caused by reckless riding) I witnessed. Likewise, the degree to which a horse’s quality of life is dependent on the conduct of his or her “master,” and the intolerable pain of the soul- and body-breaking drudgery to which cart-pulling horses, horses for hire, and other enslaved animals are subject—all this, too, can be brought into relief by accounts of the institution of human slavery, on whose perniciousness stories of animal exploitation can in turn shed light. Underscoring these narrative parallels will extend the abolitionist project, both within and beyond the human realm.

3.2.2. Other shadow stories can be drawn from narratives of worldly decline, in which characters experience a more or less gradual loss of status, wealth, and well-being, particularly through events beyond their control. Tales of decline whose characters move from the country to the city will enable my account to be linked to ongoing shifts in human society—shifts involving industrialization, urbanization, and the loss of connection to place, i.e., the dissipation of any sense of home. Also relevant are stories in which some sort of Deus-Ex-Machina rescue redirects characters away from a downward trajectory. Such narratives cater to readers’ desire for wish fulfillment; but they also highlight, from a different perspective, the danger of casting mere happenstance, chance events, as the solution to systemic socio-ethical problems like those at the root of my own story of diminishment and loss.

3.2.3. Speaking of which, narratives that feature speaking animals as they grapple with moral dilemmas constitute another source of shadow stories. But this narrative tradition will need to be turned inside out, shadow transformed into sun. The discourse and experiences of the animal agents in my account should not merely refract or analogize infrahuman quandaries; instead, they should engage with a more expansive universe of care and concern—a universe in which questions about humans’ orientation toward and treatment of other living creatures can be brought to the fore.

4. A phrase comes to me unbidden: “to grow young again in meadows filled with apple trees.” The life-destroying effects of hard-hearted cruelty, of thoughtless mistreatment, of objectifying exploitation for monetary gain cannot be erased. But surely there are places of joyful reprieve where, spared the riding whip and bearing rein, throwing off the crushing burden of unrelenting toil, creatures of my kind—and other kinds—might learn to feel at home?

5. Hoofprints ahead, in the loamy earth, suggest not so much a path between quiet fields as a bridge between generations, from foal to mother, from mother to elder. That bridge must be rebuilt, life by life, memory by memory, to reanimate our heritage—and heal the future.


About the writer:
David Herman’s translation of Klaus Modick’s  Moos (Moss) was published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2020, and his essay about the experience of translating the novel recently appeared in Barzakh. He is also the translator of ““Ein russischer Sommer” (“A Russian Summer”), a short story by Gabriele Wohmann about literal and figurative fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and the author of a chapter on “Self-Narratives and Inter-Species Identities.” His article on “Experimental Writing as Autoethnography: Thalia Field’s Decentered Stories of Personhood” is forthcoming in the journal Transpositiones. “The Lost Notebooks of Black Beauty” is part of a larger collection of posthumanist fables, another portion of which, “The Fence,” was published in LandLocked Magazine.

Image: Zauberpferde by Margaret Hofheinz-Döring (1910-1994). Oil on canvas. 75 x 100 cm. 1972. By free license.

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