Laika… lost in space
Posted on 17 March 2011, 3:36
I’ve been reading two books alongside each other in bed at night. It’s not something I would normally do as it’s too ambitious just before diving into sleep, but one is more of a serious read, while the other’s a graphic novel, so they make a good contrast.
John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? is in the Penguin Great Ideas series, and it’s a slim, readable book of short pieces in which Berger reflects on the dwindling and marginalized role of animals in our world. His argument is that humans once visibly shared the world with animals, who were present all around us, even in our cities. Animals were once ‘with man at the centre of his world,’ says Berger.
It’s hard to believe now that only a century ago, street life in London was full of horses who pulled carriages and buses and delivered goods. The invention of engines and the spread of towns and villages has driven domesticated animals and wildlife into retreat, while around the world animals are confined to safari parks or are becoming extinct.
The net effect, argues Berger, is that animals have ceased to be our companions and have either become pets, where they are accessorised into our lives, or a spectacle, like the creatures in zoos or the animals captured by the lens in David Attenborough programmes. ‘Everywhere animals disappear,’ says Berger. ‘In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance.’
I’m only halfway through Berger, but I finished the second book, Laika, by writer and illustrator Nick Abadzis, last night.
Set in the Cold War, this comic strip novel tells the story of a stray Moscow dog who became the most famous canine in the world when she was rocketed into space in 1957 by the Russians, just a month after the launch of Sputnik. Her name was Laika (Russian for ‘Barker’), although American newspapers quickly renamed her Muttnik.
The price of her fame as the first life form in space was high: there was no return to earth provided for Laika and she died of stress and overheating just hours after reaching orbit. The book tells her story poignantly, the words and images forming a meditation on trust, love, betrayal and the alienation of human beings from animals and each other.
There are frames in the comic strip which deliver emotional impact in a way no words could ever do, and there is poetry as Laika is shown flying in the dreams of the little girl who lost her forever on the streets. The final section of the book summons up fear and dread in the face of implacable events as powerfully as in any film. I finished reading in the early hours of the morning, long after I should have turned in for the night.
Nick Abadzis carried out detailed historical research in writing and artworking his book, but he also invented characters and situations to create a sort of myth of Laika, which like all potent myths gets to the deep heart of the story.
The book concludes with a genuine quote by one of the scientists, who said, 40 years after the Laika mission, ‘Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.’ Betraying the original companionship of animals carries a high price.