Quintus Erectus”

The following excerpt, about a capybara-like animal indigenous to South America, is taken from an original story written by the great Czech writer Michal Ajvaz for our forthcoming Bestiary anthology. Ajvaz  translated the story into English; this version has been lightly copy-edited from the original. For a full Bestiary table of contents, click here. Come back tomorrow for another piece by Ajvaz and an interview with the author. (Photo credit here.) – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

Besides its size the quintus is extraordinary for one reason alone, and this reason is just its unique mimicry. As a matter of fact, even this mimicry is in principle not something entirely new; it is so called Batesian mimicry,which is not rare in Nature. (Batesian mimicry is characterized by the fact that a harmless animal accepts the marks of appearance of a dangerous animal…) And likewise the harmless and vulnerable quintus defends itself by means of the imitation of a predator, and the aim of this imitation is probably to cause on the one hand a fear of other animals and on the other hand a lack of interest on the part of individuals of the species which is imitated.

Mimicry typical of the quintus is unique only in that regard that the predator which is imitated by look of the quintus is a man. When the quintus is moving on all fours, nobody would find any resemblance between it and a man; the quintus that is feeding on the grass looks a bit like a bigger capybara. But the animal has a habit that at a hint of a danger it takes a stand on its hinders (therefore quintus erectus), presses its hands closely to the body, turns its head to the attacker and remains motionless. … the human body is … depicted on the hair of the animal, namely two vertical strips of dark hair which evoke an impression of human hands with fingers. The most extraordinary is the head of the animal: it is overgrown with smooth hair that looks like skin; the drawn out nose disappears in frontview; coloured places on the head depict human face: eyes, eyebrows, a nose, and a mouth, while the real eyes and mouth are not discernible in the hair. At a distance of three meters we can easily mistake the animal for a man; from a distance of five meters the animal is indistinguishable from a man.

I will never forget when I encountered this animal for the first time. I noticed a quintus grazing in a meadow. When it caught a sight of me, it immediately stood on its hinders and stiffened. The transformation of a big rodent to a being that looks like a man was in itself something oppressive and obscene, and I understood the nausea which this animal evokes even amidst a society of scientists and which is stronger than scientific interest. We were standing there and looking one at another for a long time. Quintus looked at me with its little eyes, hidden under the hair, and with the blind eyes which Nature had painted on its hair. I felt bad, but at the same time I couldn´t stop looking at the animal.

***

I don´t regret that I have dedicated several years of my life to the study of this animal and to writing a book about it that all publishing houses under different pretenses have decided to reject. I am in doubt about one thing only: I am not sure that I was right when I decided to bring one specimen of the quintus to Europe. …The way a quintus behaves in captivity was not known for the reason that the first man who had the idea to hold a quintus captive was me. Oddly enough, I found out that my quintus, after an initial phase of intimidation when it stood for hours in a corner of my room like a strange guest, became more devoted than a dog. When I took it for a walk, it was intimidated, it was afraid of people, cars and dogs and constantly took a stand on its hinders. Its transformation into an odd man was displeasing here even more than in its native land. I saw mothers covering the eyes of their children as if they were looking at something obscene. People would swear at the quintus; an excited old man began to beat the animal, and me as well, with his cane. Later we began to go out only at twilight and in the night. In the light of lamps hardly anybody learned that it wasn´t a man.

The quintus was extremely cuddly; but I must confess that its cuddliness wasn´t pleasant for me. When it tenderly nuzzled my face with its false face, where a tongue of an animal suddenly appeared in an improper place, and when the quintus began to lick me with it, I didn’t feel good. I have never harmed my quintus, but I haven´t managed to love the animal really. It wasn´t possible not to feel a certain reluctance against an animal with which Nature had played an odd game, when it gave the creature as a defensive mask the appearance of a being from which it was so extremely distant on the tree of development of species.

I thought of returning the animal back to the virgin forest. As if the quintus suspected this, it looked at me with a panic-stricken and imploring gaze as if it wanted to tell me: I know what are you feeling, I am not claiming your love, but, please, let me stay here, don´t return me to the forest. You don´t know what suffering it is for me to meet animals that look like me.

This moment made me think of the sad crossbred Franz Kafka had written about – but how different was its unhappiness from the misfortune of the quintus´s life! The torment of Kafka´s animal subsisted in the fact that it was the only animal of its species. Quintuses suffer in the contact with animals of other species because they realize their oddity, but in contact with one another suffer in addition to it because they see that oddity in a mirror; they feel embarrassment in contact with the animals of the same species, and a shame. Quintuses have no enemies, no one attacks them, but their life is an incessant torment.

Michal Ajvaz (1949 -) is a brilliant Czech novelist, poet and translator. Born into an exiled Russian family, Ajvaz studied Czech studies and esthetics at Charles University in Prague. He did not begin publishing fiction until 1989, due to the political repression in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). Ajvaz’s brand of fiction would have been antithetical to any entrenched orthodoxy. His novel Prázdné ulice was awarded the prestigious Jaroslav Seifert Prize for literary achievement (2005). English-language translations include the critically acclaimed The Other City (2009) and The Golden Age (2010) from Dalkey Archive Press.

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