Tsum | Review: Joukje Akveld and Djenné Fila – A Short History of Man Through Animal Eyes

The witnesses are no longer silent

The beautifully designed cover and exterior of the A brief history of man through the eyes of animals It may look like a picture book, but the title and subtitle—”About Sacred Cows, Space Monkeys, and the Call of the Kakapo”—reveal the real story. A quick glance at the table of contents shows that Joukje Akveld and Djenne Fila are writing a chronological history, from 200,000 years ago in Botswana to present-day South Africa, where the author lived for several years. A total of 29 animals, each with a special relationship with humans, speak in a special way: ‘They are goldmine or plague, companion or beast, medicine or panacea. According to the people at the time. This is precisely the avoidance of an overly human perspective: were the animals merely “silent witnesses in the front row” in the course of history, so the author and the illustrator give them a voice of their own.

Ackfield begins her history with a dick-dick in Botswana, where a poignantly illustrated young antelope meets a new species, a man. The mother still reassures her child: “Watch them, but the greatest danger does not come from them.” Although early humans regarded the animals around them as a source of food, they were also “animals among animals.” They went hunting, but out of necessity, and it sometimes ended badly for both parties, Ackfield explains: “Animals were on his menu, but he was on theirs.”

Scientific information is always grouped into the same tight structure: First, the animal in question has its say, through dialogue, testimony, or an appropriate eulogy. Although generally fluent in writing, these images rarely exceed a page and a half, proving too limited to exploit their full narrative potential. Akveld does not fully reach the depth that scientific information clearly shows. After all, animal stories are the beginning of a broader scientific-historical reflection on the animal in question, for example as a victim of climate, an object of study, a scapegoat, a defendant, and much more. The jobs handled are as varied as the animal species depicted; From ground sloths and polar bears to popular pets, mountain gorillas and Javan anteaters. In the margins of the text, Akveld provides a variety of in-depth information and special facts, for example about animals as defendants in court, genocide and epidemics, and the influence of animal rights organisations. Technical concepts such as ice age, animal fauna, and zoonotic diseases are always explained.

With such a rich and surprising history, Akveld is clearly not ready for her experimental chop. She has previously published scientific works on animals that have been well received by the press and the public, always with a critical and idiosyncratic eye and written in sparkling language, such as Monkey on the toilet (2015) and We were here first (2017).

Djenne Villa also offers a diverse sample of her skills. Thanks to the outward size, she has plenty of room for her grotesquely swirling silhouette. The many striking details convince and provide a solid representation of the text rather than the bland illustrations in non-fiction books. Vila, on the contrary, does justice to the individuality of the various animal species and apparently brings them to life; Sometimes in a sober, controlled color palette in purely natural tones, sometimes through color expansion. The first edition immediately attracts all the attention; Not only is the full-page illustration convincing, but the first human is reflected in Dick Dick’s big eyes. Against the innocent antelope, Fila places the shadow of a human being, not accidentally armed with a spear. At least as powerful is the smaller, serene illustration of an hourglass with melting snow depicting the head of a polar bear. The duality of the white rhinoceros print is also thought-provoking: once again, Villa incorporates the shadow of the armed person onto the animal’s figure. His personal protector who is mentioned in the text? Or is it, on the contrary, about poachers after the horn?

The book ends with an extensive list of sources, which makes perfect sense to me. The entire book is based on solid scientific information and knowledge, full of really important facts and details. When an inspiring author like Joukje Akveld collaborates with a great illustrator like Djenné Fila, a very special book is created, written with a love of nature and yet with critical objectivity, with a wealth of information that will undoubtedly broaden the horizon of young readers. So handsome.

Jurgen Peters

Jokji Ackfield and Jenny Villa – A brief history of man through the eyes of animals. Lanu, Telt. 94 pages, 29.99 euros.

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