This book humbles you, and makes you realise how powerful stories can be. It’s about rabbits.
It’s been said that carnivores evolved binocular vision – both eyes pointing forward – because it’s better for hunting, while herbivores have eyes on the sides of their heads to maximise their field of vision (there are exceptions, pandas have binocular vision, for example). Combine sideways eyes with disproportionate ears and fast legs and you have a rabbit, a creature with a thousand enemies. To be a rabbit is to live in fear. Your very design is a statement of your vulnerability.
It must be stressful to be a rabbit. Constant danger. Constant alertness. Attacks might come from any quadrant and any direction – the sky, or the ground below. Your weapons are inadequate. Your only defence is vigilance. Fortunately, the fictional rabbits in this story have another defence: a precognitive runt called Fiver who one day has a vision of destruction falling on their warren.
Attempts to persuade the chief rabbit fail, and a handful of believers abandon the warren. What follows is an adventure in southern England, and then an attempt to start a new warren next to the aggressive and warlike Efrafans.
Adams makes us feel the terror and smallness of a rabbit’s existence. Human things like trains and bulldozers seem as monstrous as Greek titans. Cats seem as cruel to us as they do to the numerous small creatures in the story. There’s a scene where the heroes are helping some rabbits escape from a hutch and it feels like they’re storming Fort Knox. Reading Watership down is like watching an IMAX movie, every blade of grass magnified a hundred times on the screen.
The numerous scenes of lightness and comedy (such as the stories of the mythological rabbit El-ahrairah) are perfectly inserted into the story, and relieve the tension without breaking it. Characterisation is another strong point. Every real life rabbit has seemed boring indeed next to these ones. Nearly every real life human, too.
Some authors cheat and make their animals into humans (as in Pride of Baghdad). Other authors are conservative and leave their animals fully animal, which sounds laudable but is often boring in practice (I think Tarka the Otter was like that, but it’s been years since I’ve read it).
Richard Adams achieves a balance. The rabbits are anthropomorphalised enough so that we relate to them and understand their motives, but they are still animal enough to thrill the reader with their strangeness.
Despite their vulnerability, rabbits have proven to be astonishingly successful. A thousand enemies haven’t stopped them from devastating my country’s ecosystem. This book is equally successful, and far less harmful. It’s an amazing story that exalts the small, and makes holes dug in the ground seem like palaces.
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There was a clock in the hallway. He couldn’t see it, but it spoke the seconds like a visitor that never tired of talking to him.
His cell was two meters long by three meters wide. At its narrowest point, he could take two forward steps. Concrete thwarted even the beginning of a third. He had slab of hard ticking to sleep on. There was a combined toilet/sink in the corner.
The door was a sheet of steel with a rectangular slot. From outside the door came noises – footsteps, voices, and jangling keys. All of it happening a few meters away, and all of it as distant as interstellar radio. The ticking clock was the only thing that intruded into his world.
There were a few books, a stack of blank pages and a pencil. Some of them had been written on.
Once, he’d tried keeping a prison diary.
He’d given up on that partly because he had nothing to write about, and only the barest scaffolding of reality to attach that nothing to. Was it normal to be in prison – in solitary confinement – and not remember why? Was it worth writing anything when nothing ever happened? Was it enough to just be ? He didn’t think it was. His life felt blanker than the pages he was writing on.
But mostly, he’d stopped writing because the things he wrote were wrong.
He would write something innocuous and self-evident. Then he’d masturbate, eat his dinner, sleep, wake up, read the words again, and they’d make sense. Then he’d count to a thousand, eat his lunch, trace out a crack in the wall with his finger, thumb uselessly through a read-to-rags paperback, walk from one end of his cell to the other a hundred times, whistle, recite the prime numbers from one to a hundred, nap, read his words again, and they’d still make sense.
But eventually, they wouldn’t.
Sooner or later, they stopped being right. They became the words of a different person, dwelling in a different place.
He’d read a sentence like my mattress is made of vinyl , and touch his fabric mattress in a state of wonder.
I have sixteen pages of paper … Disorientation, when a recount proved the number to be fifteen.
On the final page, written in pencil, were the words My name is Kruger .
He’d re-read that days later, and a memory from years earlier surfaced. The girl from the motor registry handed over his driver’s license. “Hey, just to check…that’s kay-ar-yoo-ee-gee-ee-ar, right? Oh, good. I thought I’d made a mistake and I’d need to start the machine up again.” … No, he could not keep a diary after that.
Sometimes he lay on his mattress, wondering how long it would be before he started the slow descent into madness.
Reading his writing made him think the descent was already happening…and it was anything but slow.
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