Friday, 21 January 2011

On Not Eating Animals

600 people at an alleged €17 a pop, and a piece on the late-night news. That's what you get when you invite Jonathan Safran Foer and Karen Duve to read from their books and talk about not eating animals. I went along for free, because my friend Isabel Bogdan translated Mr Safran Foer's book along with two other lovely and talented translators, Brigitte Jakobeit and Ingo Herzke. But I was one of the small minority in the huge audience who hadn't actually read Eating Animals. I read Anständig essen (Eating Decently) instead.

Karen Duve is a top fiction writer with a sharp sense of humour. You can read her novels This Is Not A Love Song and Rain in English, trans. Anthea Bell (although that took a bit of research to work out - the publishers Bloomsbury seem loathe to mention the fact). I loved her last book, Taxi. And now she's written her first piece of non-fiction, a personal account of her ten-month attempt to eat like a decent human being. She starts off going organic, then vegetarian, then vegan, and finally only eats plant products that don't kill the plant itself when you harvest them, i.e. fruit but no potatoes, peas but no carrots, etc.

Which ties in nicely with Safran Foer's book, presumably. Except that the two of them took rather different approaches to what is essentially the big problem with trying to tell other people what they should and should not eat - the preachiness of it all.

As far as I gathered at last night's reading, JSF (I can't pronounce it so I'll just abbreviate it from now on) tried to tell people what's bad about eating animals without actually telling them what to do about it. Certainly he was very coy in person about how better to persuade people to become vegetarians. It was all about setting a good example and being a better person, not getting on anyone's nerves, doing the right thing, starting with yourself, loving your grandparents, and so forth. Which in itself has a saccharine aftertaste - to me personally - that says, "Hey, you guys just go ahead and destroy the environment and torture poor creatures, I'll be over here with my nut loaf and my clear conscience. Oh, and did I mention my son wrote a letter to David Attenborough?"

Karen Duve, on the other hand, took the more typically German approach - just to labour another cliché. She started with herself, but she's not afraid to get out that moral club and beat you over the head with it until you fall to the ground whimpering and begging for tofu. What she did to take the edge off her preaching was to use her sense of humour.

So the book opens with a device, an external conscience by the name of - wait for it - Jiminy Cricket, Duve's housemate who is a paragon of virtue. Isabel and I aren't sure the woman really exists, but she certainly makes for entertaining reading. Duve does her best to convince Jiminy/Kerstin of what she's doing at each stage, going from suggesting organic farming might be an absolute gift to animals, who get a roof over their head and three square meals a day and a nice stroll around the meadow, to not letting her mow the lawn because it hurts the blades of grass. And she thoroughly enjoys out-consciencing her conscience by eating as ethically as she can.

Or there's a fantastic scene in which Duve visits her family and preaches at them about veganism and factory farming, while her brothers and nephews and so on get bored and walk away and her mother suggests she have a nice drink of milk - it's OK, it's skimmed. She's perfectly aware she's become a food bore, but she milks it (excuse me, I couldn't resist) for all the gags it's worth. She also gently teases other ethical eaters, from the lady in the wholefood shop who lets her water expand in a jug before she drinks it to the rivalling Alpha males in the raw food movement.

In between, of course, there are shocking facts you're probably already half aware of about farming and slaughtering methods, climate change reports, a spot of live animal liberation, interesting stuff about Jainism, and a lot of ethical qualms and indecent cravings. Towards the end, when Duve was living on a diet of peas cooked in coconut milk, the theories became rather addled to my mind. I was reminded of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, forced to eat only peas for a medical experiment, and I clearly recalled an undergraduate seminar in which someone (it may have been me) pointed out with perfect 20-year-old logic that it was no wonder he killed his girlfriend if his diet was so restricted.

Karen Duve didn't kill anything but a few insects, but she does get rather vague about some kind of "creation" that meant all living beings to be equal, and I couldn't help laughing at the accidental lie-detector tests on office plants. All in all, though, the book was rescued by her admissions at the end - that it's not easy eating ethically but she's going to try her best to be as vegan as possible.

All this comes at a time when vegetarianism, we're told, is in fashion. Judging by snippets I picked up at the reading, a lot of people came because of the subject rather than the writers. There were activists in animal costumes outside, calling attention to a demonstration tomorrow. And the guy selling sandwiches in the corridor was keeping rather quiet about his salami baguettes. Add to that the latest farming scandal over contaminated eggs, and we may be witnessing a turning point. Still, it's a hell of a lot easier to be vegetarian in Britain than it is here, and has been for about twenty years.

Things may be looking up, though. The whole publishers and translators kit and caboodle went to a vegan restaurant after JSF had finished signing 3 million autographs. I'm told it was excellent, although I personally have made a vow not to do so much ligging and therefore didn't even attempt to invite myself along, even though it was very conveniently situated on my way home.

I still eat meat, so far. Isabel's given it up, more or less.

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