ISOLARII, a subscription-based press out of the UK, calls Modern Animal: A Cycle of Lectures on the Modern Lives of Animals by Yevgenia Belorusets partly autofiction. To create this book, Belorusets put herself in the place of an animal. But what distinguishes a human from an animal? In order to determine this, Belorusets looks at her own life through the lens of animals. The writing is suitably raw and direct, but as carefully outlined as an animal’s footprint.
Part of Isolarii’s mission is to assemble disparate writers, artists, filmmakers, and architects to produce books that are small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand. The name Isolarii invokes “island books”: “each book an island, a space that held a singular idea.” The ideas of Modern Animal are presented in the form of lectures. The book begins with an overview outlining the difference between animals and humans, and the subsequent chapters focus on specific examples. Some are written from the point of view of animals themselves. Themes Belorusets addresses include loneliness, war, spirituality, and love. For her, these are not only human circumstances. As she argues, while humans look to animals for reflections of themselves, animals also can take on the characteristics of human beings.
Loneliness is experienced by both animals and humans, for example, but it seems that animals take more desperate actions to remedy it. When describing a wolf, Belorusets writes, “Desperate, she would run up to unfamiliar packs.” Loneliness for humans is represented in such ideas as the longing for a childhood room. “I’m trying to return to my childhood room,” Belorusets writes. The memories in that room are captured in black-and-white photographs that are a document of time and therefore a document of fate. One of the photographs includes footprints that reveal the trace of animals. It shows where the animal world will lead, where fate will take us.
The first photographs in the book show birds searching for something. Birds can be compared to humans in their quest to find something that will fulfill their desires. Other photographs are close-ups that focus on one aspect of an animal, making them appear abstract, different from the way we traditionally view them. The enterprise of photography itself is envisaged through the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. “The Maidan was flooded with people with cameras,” Belorusets observes. People wanted to commemorate this point in time themselves, to see a new world through the camera.
Later, war becomes part of the book’s landscape, possibly the war that is happening within Ukraine today. Belorusets states that those killed in a war are almost exclusively animals, suggesting that humans turn into animals in the context of war. The book meditates extensively on death, and what may come after. In one episode, the soul of a dead woman finds its way into a chicken from her native village. “The chicken,” Belorusets writes, was “now burdened with two souls, her own and a human one.” Later, she states that an “animal cemetery is just like the human one: a place of opportunities where there are beings waiting for us.” Passages like this are reminiscent of folktales that combine human and animal qualities.
Loving animals, Belorusets argues, helps people to learn how to love one another. In her own case, it was love for a killer horse that began to teach the lesson of affection. “A fate is a life that begins and ends like a story,” she writes, and this book is as much about fate as it is about animals. “An animal in a book is an animal with a fate,” and the same can be said for a human. Belorusets questions why humans and animals sometimes share the same fate when only the humans might have done something to deserve it.
There is also a middle ground between human and animal — namely, when a human longs to become an animal or when an animal is featured in a book. Animals that have names straddle the boundary between human and animal. Their name alone gives them a human quality. “Perhaps, it’s her name that was to blame for it all,” Belorusets writes. “And because of her name, she became, even if it might sound like too much to say this, she became my friend.”
Modern Animals, beautifully translated by Bela Shayevich, is about humans and animals connecting. Within the context of the book, Belorusets herself is both human and animal. Her ability to speak from the point of view of an animal makes the book not only like a folktale but also, as the press avows, a curious form of autofiction.
Olena Jennings is the author of the collection of poems Songs from an Apartment (Underground Books, 2017) and of the novel Temporary Shelter (Červená Barva Press, 2021). Her translations of Ukrainian poetry have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, and a volume of Iryna Shuvalova’s verse, Pray to the Empty Walls, co-translated with the poet, was published in 2019 by Lost Horse Press.