|You're an Animal, Viskovitz!|
by Alessandro Boffa
Posted: September 5, 2003
Call it anthropomorphporn.
But banish quickly any images of lewd spam crowding your email inbox. What follows is as steamy as it gets: “With my radula I delicately caressed my pneumosome, with the distal part of my foot I brushed the proximal. I felt the warm pressure of the rhinophor slipping under my shell…”
This account of a hermaphroditic snail seducing itself comes as no surprise among Boffa’s collection of love stories from the natural world. A sponge claims it needs to stop drinking and is continually upset that prevailing ocean currents carry its sperm in the opposite direction of its beloved; a depressed dormouse finds solace in dreams in which the languorous, half-remembered phases of sleeping and waking become more pleasurable than sex.
The PG-rated book consists of freestanding chapters wherein the eponymous Viskovitz—in one chapter a dormouse, in another a Buddhist dog, then a scorpion, etc.—represents that non-human male in thrall to its reproductive drive. A male for the most part (see above reference to hermaphroditism), he pursues Ljuba, the idealized essence of a feminine mate, often against his better judgment.
The morphing Viskovitz proceeds forth into trysts and attempted trysts with a kvetching self-awareness that is reminiscent of Woody Allen. Therein lies the metaphor that connects the disparate stories and serves as the fulcrum on which the comic turns tilt: A slave to chemical impulses, Viskovitz pursues partnerships, mating and otherwise, without being able to consider the consequences.
The anthropomorphism might trigger the cute alarm more often than some readers might wish. But the book doesn’t take itself too seriously; the sheer breeziness and lack of pretense will cause most readers to suspend their harsher critical faculties.
At best, the conceit allows Boffa to explore the delicate balance between human nature and animal nature with the combined voice of the humanist and the scientist. At worst, one can easily imagine the book as a fantasy animated by Pixar.
In the chapter titled But Don’t You Ever Think of Sex, Viskovitz?, a father snail talks to his son about the birds and the bees. The father, Mommydaddy, informs young Viskovitz that soon he will have to pursue a mate and suggests some schoolmates as candidates. The youngster is horrified. Mommydaddy says:
“They come from good families with pretty good genetic inheritance and good evolutionary prospects. Beauty isn’t everything, Visko.”
“But have you looked at them?” I pointed my rhinophor toward Zucotic, a gaunt gastropod with a shell that was practically clypeiform, an invaginated eye, an atrophied ctendium. He revolted even predators.”
Visko is saved from the indignity of having to mate with one of his best friends by learning that he will instead mate with…himself. The ensuing self-seduction is laugh-out-loud funny.
The translation from the Italian is by John Casey, the author of National Book Award-winning Spartina, American Romance and Half-Life of Happiness. Casey is at home in this world of men flummoxed by the fairer sex.
Ultimately, You’re An Animal, Viskovitz! becomes a meditation of sorts on human nature itself. How different are we from our wilder counterparts in the animal kingdom? To what degree do we control our biological drives? Is it absurd to consider that the human animal’s capacity for reason has rendered our baser instincts as vestiges of our primate past?
Boffa, I imagine, would say yes.
Jack Carneal is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
A new paperback edition of the book, originally published in Italy in 1998, is now available.