Not a book review of The Wisdom of Donkeys

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.


About Gareth Thomas

After a mixed career as an aircraft technician, London fringe theatre playwright, Franciscan friar, and secondary school teacher, I find myself looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I like to listen to BBC Radio 4 and the wind in the pine trees. I am writing a comedy about a school in Benidorm. My favourite film of all time is "Jean de Florette". If I had my time again I would not have spent the early 1970s working for Special Branch.
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10 Responses to Not a book review of The Wisdom of Donkeys

  1. RatBag says:

    Ah. A sad and thoughtful “book review”. At our age, we are bound to accumulate a history of loss; friends and pets. It is particularly sad when they go before what we think of as “their time”. I am sorry about your young friend Juli.

    I gave up keeping pet rats, partly because their lives are so short. So many partings. I felt a little bit of me being torn away each time. But I don’t think such considerations have any relevance to your decision to adopt two donkeys, dear Brother Lapin. You will be doing good work in helping to preserve the Andalucian race, and so lucky to have the opportunity to do so. I am really looking forward to seeing photos of “your” donkeys, although I have my doubts about the direction of ownership in this deal!

  2. Toad says:

    Mr(?) Ratbag (What an unusual name – is it, perhaps, Albanian?) is, in my opinion, spot on, as regards ownership.
    Toad was once out with his four dogs in the Camino when a passing pilgrim asked, “Do all those dogs belong to you?”
    “No,” said Toad, “I belong to them.”

  3. Frere Rabit says:

    Yes quite, RatBag, I take the point that ‘ownership’ of the aminals is quite distasteful and they should not be for sale. In fact, all donkeys should have a monthly allowance and pay me rent for the donkey field and asinine facilities. Unfortunately, we has to start from where the world is, and aminals is genrally for sale. The alternative might be to take a horsebox across the Straits of Gibraltar (and they don’t look at all straight to me: has anyone ever gone there with a big ruler to check it out?) Then it would be a long drive to Timbuctoo, with a lasso to try rounding up my own wild donkeys. This would prolly all cost about as much as buying the donkeys locally, by the time I’d hired a horsebox, done my lassoing donkeys intensive summer school, bought a ruler, and been fleeced in the souk in Casablanca, then fined for saying “Play it again Sam,” a catchphrase now banned under local council by-laws.

  4. Frere Rabit says:

    You silly Toad! RatBag is Mrs RatBag and she is not Albanian, but from Berkshire in good old Maoist Albion. On a crackling old transistor radio we hear the strains of a rousing verse of the ‘Internationale’ and an American-accented party apparatchik welcomes us to Radio Bracknell and salutes Enver Hoxha and his power-sharing pact with the Liberals.

  5. RatBag says:

    That would be “Ms” RatBag, thank you. And, as it happens, I have no argument with Brother Rabit having to pay for the privilege of sharing his rural estate with donkeys. My point was, as Mr Toad neatly demonstrated, that the donkeys will own the Rabit. No doubt about it!
    And since my radio is usually tuned to BBC Radio 4, with the occasional excursion to Classic FM, I couldn’t possibly respond to (or even understand) Frere Lapin’s reference to Radio Bracknell.

  6. Frere Rabit says:

    Ah, Ms RatBag, I see what you mean now. BTW, it was Toad’s silly reference to Albania that struck me as absurd, so I had this instant vision of the old ‘Radio Tirana’ broadcasting from Berkshire. This was a tinny sounding communist radio station in Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Many people just listened to it more its comedy value: pure Maoist crap on our doostep. Laughably hubristic sentiments about the triumph of the workers over the imperialists who had sung their swansong and been cast into the dustbin of history.

    But you are right: the donkeys will own me. I am already planning my whole precarious financial life around vets’ fees, agricultural animal bureaucracy, ensuring no poisonous plants exist on my plot (donks are very intelligent except when it comes to food: they eat all the things that could kill them), and generally re-orientating my life around one Andaluza and prolly a nice little plain brown donkey companion for her. I don’t mind being owned by donkeys, but I just don’t want to be taken for granted ever again by people…

  7. Barbara says:

    Ecclesiastes 1 1:15

  8. Ken norton says:

    Your post seems a bit sad. We get what we look for. You look for sadness, it is everywhere you look. You look for happiness, that’s what you find. I live alone on 17 acres with 20 mini donkeys. Only 4 years ago I had been married to my high school sweet heart for 46 years. One day she just up and left, filed a no fault divorce and less than a month after the divorce she remarried an 83 year old millionaire on a walker. She got rich and I got the donkeys. Yes I was sad, I had lost the only woman I would ever love. That is what I looked at so that is what I got. Now as I said I am living alone with 20 donkeys. I have be present at the birth of 8 of the donkeys and held them in my arms while the mother recovered from the birth. No mother has ever been aggressive to me. When the mother has recovered in a few minutes she comes to me and the baby and starts cleaning it up. She also wants to clean me up. I make sure she starts nursing and then leave them alone in a seperate barn for about a month, away from the other donkeys, who mean no harm but tend to be very boxy. I visit the mother and baby each day holding the baby in my arms. The mother snuggles up close to us. After a month I let them run with the other donkeys. Each donkey has to check the newborn out so I stand with the mother and baby UNTILL everyone has had their sniff. It is after this point that the mother will bring the baby to me and give it a nudge it the butt pushing it in my direction. I bend down and the baby will lay in my arms. Then the mother will leave the baby with me and go off and graze for about 30 minuets. She then returns for her baby and off they go. If humans had half th qualities of the donkey it would be a much better world. With a donkey trust or faith if you would like to call it is upmost in their mind. Once they trust and have faith in you they will follow you any where. If you get the idea you are dealing with a dumb animal they will out think you every time. My donkeys can be in the far end of the land, I can call ones name and soon it will show up. I have had to give CPR to one of my donkeys who got tangled up in a rope hammock . The other donkey gathered around him in a circle and all started braying to get my attention. I had to cut him out of the hammock and he had no heart beat. I covered his mouth and gave quick breaths through is nose and then changed to compressions. After about 5 minuets I got him breathing and his heart beat returned. I spend about 4 hours a day with my donkeys, and on full moon nights we take donkey walks through the woods. I say lets go and they get in a single line and off we go. Yes there is sadness in the world, but sadness is only our reaction to an event. Without death, how could there be life? Death is not something to dread, it is a part of accepting reality of nature. All creatures great and small suffer at some point, so what? You can’t change what is. Life is what you make it, no more, no less. Now my wife of 45 years ran off with an old millionaire and yes I was sad for a while. I live on social security check of 755.00 a month. My donkeys only eat the best coastal hay. I cut rake and bail th hay for a rancher and that is how I am able to feed the donkeys. They go through a round bale a week. So my ex wife is now a millionaire, and all I have is twenty donkeys. The funny thing is, I am a billionaire because all the diamonds, gold and the money could not buy one of my donkeys. There are many if not most things that really count that money can’t buy. As for religion, that’s a man made thing, has very little to do with God. The Catholic Church has had so many counsels changing this or that, who the hell knows what the true scripture is. God on the other hand, you can count on it He’s there and His universe is unfolding as it should. You don’t believe He’s there, It makes no difference. Believe what you choose, that’s why you have a free will. As for the donkey? Gods greatest work. You get to know a donkey and I mean really get to know a donkey at there will come a time you will see the world through Gods eyes. Everything you look upon will bring happiness. I am a song writer and am working on a song called, I had rather spend an afternoon with a donkey, than a lifetime with you. Sorry for your loss as well as your sadness but in spite of all the suffering and death th world is a wonderful place and happineness is all around if you just look for it. Donkeys are special Zen masters and you can learn more from one donkey than all the university’s or churches in the world. You just have to detach from your self and flow with the universe. It is only when you stop searching so hard for happiness that you will realize it was right there all the time. The Donkey Man

  9. Frere Rabit says:

    Donkey Man, thank you. That was one of the longest ever comments this blog has received. I thank you for your time, and no doubt your donkeys thank you as well. God bless you.

  10. Kenny norton says:

    You seem much happier than two years ago. I wrote a post on your new site but am not sure it got put up. Donkeys are good for the spirit and soul, if they ever seem a burden to care for then you have yet to learn the secrets God is willing to share through them. When is trouble no trouble at all? When we choose it to be so. It is never the donkey who needs to be trained, it is the keeper of Gods chosen creation who need the training. God created the donkey perfectly. The only creation that chose to give up their perfection was the human. Given free wills kind soon learned to abuse it. The donkey given free will learned to use it. Generations of donkeys have more than paid their dues, as have the Jewis population. Everything has a season and the season of peace as well as Isreal is long over due for both. The donkey will teach you the mystic way back to God. However you must, listen and watch with an open heart. You must learn to leave ego and live on donkey time. It is then you will learn patience , mercy and grace. These three lead to unconditional love an in turn you can reach out and touch the very hand of God. Some will laugh at this and laughter is good. Some will miss the point all together which is also good. It gives a better idea as to where to aim. The donkey will lead you home but it is the donkey who is the master, not the keeper. God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confuse the wise. What could we humans possibly have to teach the donkey? Tricks? That’s an ego thing. And to the world most often the donkey is looked upon as foolish. The donkey lives in the kingdom we so desperately seek. Know the donkey well and you too are able to inter into the world of the Mystic where God dwells and is eagerly waiting to share the keys to the kingdom. The donkey man

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