I had intended, a few days ago, to write a book review of Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys. Having told Toad that it was a Very Good Book, I thought I had to go into serious book appraisal mode, so I planned to review it when I finished reading it. The philosophical enquiry in the narrative seemed to be heading in the direction of Spinoza; but then it spun off the track completely and Merrifield just mused on literary anecdotes about donkeys. He seemed to waver – like a donkey who stops dead in the track just trying to solve a silent problem – and he eventually leaves the path to browse in a field, having given up on the ‘mindfulness’ journey altogether.
Not very far into the book, Merrifield mentions Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au hasard Balthasar. I knew of the film. My daughter – seeing my infatuation with equus asinus – had also reminded me of the film. I had never seen it. I read Merrifield’s description of the closing scene, with Balthasar – who has been cruelly shot – bleeding to death in an Alpine pasture surrounded by sheep, and quietly fading away at the end of a life of mistreatment.
I began to feel terribly fragile. All that I went through earlier this year came unaccountably flooding back: the horror of the situation I faced in Canterbury when the Criminal Records Bureau messed up the computer records during a routine check for clearance to work as a teacher. Finally quitting England, and now still resolved never to return again to the country of my birth, it was my walk with Dallie the donkey in France in August that finally began the healing process. The gentle donkey is such a soft, cuddly and unthreatening companion that I cannot bear the thought of a donkey being mistreated.
There was a news item in recent times about a donkey in Russia being treated to a para-glider ride over water. The donkey welfare charities rightly publicised the incident and complained to the Russian government. Having walked with a donkey and seen how it carefully assesses every situation, obsessively concerned with its safety, I was appalled and angered when I heard about that para-gliding incident. The thought of that scene at the end of Robert Bresson’s film, as described by Merrifield began to trouble me. Could I ever dare to watch it?
Of course I had to watch it. I found it on YouTube. There was the opening sequence with the suckling of Balthasar and his adoption by children who cuddle him and love him; then the scene in the circus; and finally his death in the meadow surrounded by sheep with tinkling bells, and the heart-rending Schubert sonata number 20.
I have been working during the fiestas – a break from school teaching – and preparing my donkey field. I am all set to go to the donkey sanctuary in early December to see the pair of donkeys they are offering me. It was perhaps the wrong time to watch Au hasard Balthasar. I went around for a whole day with tears in my eyes, sorry not just for the poor donkey, its head slowly drooping as it fades away among the sheep, but sad for all of us. This was an existential crisis, not a Bambi moment. After the harshness of my treatment in the Catholic Church – while simply trying to follow a sense of vocation in an environment that is uncaring and downright cruel – then the absurdity of the CRB computer mix up and the Kafkaesque plunge into individual and social “nowhere land”, this donkeycentric film of Bresson tore at my very entrails and wrenched my comfortable psychological recovery completely out of joint.
On Sunday, the last Sunday of ‘Ordinary Time’ in the Catholic calendar, I listened to the (‘Catholic lite’) liberal priest of Finistrat droning on in another sermon about nothing in particular, taking the powerful apocalyptic text and trivialising it until there was no point in sitting there any longer. I only remained out of politeness. If I had had any guts I would have just walked out and gone to the Bar Cantonet for a beer. Yes, even at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I received Communion without feeling. Christ was a dying donkey in a field of sheep: He was not here among this dozen elderly women of Finistrat listening to a boring modernist who doesn’t even dress as a priest. Modernism begets modernism. I drift towards an existential Catholic position. Frighteningly real and born out of my accumulated experience of an uncaring Church which has only ever dealt me blows; and yet I remain to receive more. Why?
Yes, what kind of book review is this? The Wisdom of Donkeys. Andy Merrifield. I found it enthralling. A kind of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without the home-made gasket Quality moment that opens up the divide between Aristotle and Plato. In fact, without anything except a sentimentality around large eyes, furry big ears, and plaintive brays. If my experience of donkeys is a healing process, my experience of the writer who sentimentalises the noble donkey is one more nail in the coffin of a world that offers “Life Coaching” as the antidote to the Banking Crisis. Rubbish! Who do you take me for?
I am getting ready to go with my daughter – who flies out soon – and see my donkeys at Xalo. The giant Andalusian burra and a social donkey of a smaller race who will be its companion. I am preparing a field and planning a stable. This is practical donkey care and love. This is my solution to a Kafka world that targetted me for no reason and mistreats donkeys everywhere. I began to be annoyed by Merrifield’s book, just as I became aware of another layer of tragedy. Awful tragedy. The death of Reb and Paddy’s poor old three-legged dog Una was expected. I didn’t want to visit their blogs too often just at the moment because their agony over the dying Una was a reminder to me that I am investing huge personal core emotion in a donkey pasture.
This was too close to home. I have not had my own pet since 1966 when my Belgian hare “Lapin” disappeared. Later I was told he had been eaten by an Alsatian belonging to a jazz playing neighbour. I have disliked dogs and hated jazz musicians ever since, but I’ll make an exception and in solidarity mourn Una because I am aware of the emotional investment in the poor suffering animal, and it scares me. While working on my donkey project, I am imagining every day the animals who will be arriving soon; animals I do not even know yet. One day having bonded with those donkeys, whatever experiences we enjoy, we will be separated again in whatever circumstances life throws at us. That will be immensely painful. In birth we are in death, etc.
And then (this is still a book review?) the final blow, deep down in the guts and totally unexpected. From Reb’s blog I learned of the death of the youngest member of the little village of Moratinos, Juli. Killed in a head-on car crash. A lovely, generous soul. When I hopped around Moratinos las year with abroken foot, she was kind and concerned. Infatuated with a visiting guitarist, she stayed late into the evening listening to him rehearse for a concert he gave in the church; while I hobbled around expending vast quantities of angst and sweat in the August sun, nursing the pain of a broken foot and condemned to inactivity and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the only book that suited my mood and my days of immobility.
She is dead and I hold the image of her lovely generous smile in living colour against the slowly drooping head of Balthasar in Bresson's film, and it makes no sense. No priest (particularly no modernist priest without a dog collar or any relevant theology) is going to offer me any explanation now. I must find my own way. I am a Catholic existentialist. A Catholic agnostic. That is different from the New Age nonsense, the failure to take into account that faith ever had any relevance. Yes, quite different. It is faith with the gloves off.
Was this a book review? Andy Merrifield's book The Wisdom of Donkeys begins by unsubtly suggesting he will offer some life coaching in skills we do not yet have, but he will teach us. The donkey will teach him, and he will relay the donkey-guru wisdom. I’ve got news for you, Merrifield: you ain’t got a clue. Nice stories about the donkeys. It’s a compendium of donkey stories, but there is not really any wisdom there. Let’s hope that Juli enjoys wisdom now, on whatever plane of being she may inhabit. And she will be out there somewhere. Do the pilgrimage, Reb. I’ll be walking in December too, across the Meseta from Burgos after I return from Christmas in France with Barbara and Chris, and more donkey cuddles with Dallie and Rosie.
I’ll walk it for Juli too, and finish in Moratinos before getting the train back to here.