Friday, October 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 178: Paul Bowles, All Parrots Speak (#50)

Paul Bowles, "All Parrots Speak" (1956) from Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings:

"I remember the day when I first became parrot-conscious" should be the opening line for a crazy, Ballardian science fiction story where a man downloads his mind--no, copies his mind--into a swarm of alien parrot-creatures. Instead, it's part of Paul Bowles's collection of parrot anecdotes. I like the current title: "All Parrots Speak" raises the question "What are they saying?" But when it was first published in Holiday magazine, this piece was called "Parrots I Have Known," which gives you a clearer sense of what it's going to be about.

Bowles goes through some of his history with parrots, starting off with the notion that, because parrots can speak, they are thought to be human-souled by primitive people, like Indians and Latin Americans. That sort of casual dehumanization sets a pretty bad tone--and precedent--for how Bowles considers  and treats the parrots he's known. There's the parrot they bought who seemed unruly, so they tried to leave him behind. There's a pretty casual buying and selling of parrots. There's some gentle scoffing at the Americans who keep their birds in cages--and then there's a long consideration of their waddling around after their wings get clipped. (Which raises another question: would you rather have your wings clipped or kept in a cage where you couldn't use your wings? Which is the crueler option?)

Mixed in with this casual disregard for others is some genuinely fine writing and observation: people who keep caged parrots tend to have hostile parrots--and a weird pride in that fact; parrots clearly have some dinosaur/lizard background; a particular parrot would go through the items on a table "like a snowplow" and people tend to respect an animal with a beak like hedge clippers; one of his parrots bit him only once, when he bought a new pair of squeaky shoes and didn't turn on the light when approaching the parrot, who seemed to pretend that it attacked him only because it was woken from a nap. (I have a soft spot for the times when people try to rationalize their pets' actions as somehow human.)

When Bowles comes around again to the idea that the parrot's speech endows it with some humanity, it almost seems like there's something within his casual demeanor trying to get out.

No comments:

Post a Comment