By Maureen Tai, 26 November 2017
“It took me some time to recognise all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient. Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape. Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.” – Ivan
Ivan is a silverback gorilla. When we meet him in The One and Only Ivan, he has already been captive in a cage for a staggering 9,855 days, equivalent to 27 years.
Ivan and his friends – Stella, the wise old elephant, Snickers, the jumping dog and Thelma, the insolent talking macaw – are animal attractions at the Big Top Mall and they belong to Mack, a man who is more to be pitied than reviled. After all, he is only trying to make a living.
The beasts are largely resigned to their fates as animal attractions. They exist to satisfy human curiosity and to pander to human whims. It is desperately sad and even more distressing to find out that Ivan’s tale was inspired by the true story of a similarly-named gorilla, wrested from the jungles of Africa, and who languished in a mall for 27 years.
Ivan thinks slow and deep thoughts, and is thrifty with his words. The short chapters, succinct sentences and generous double-line spacing of the text reinforce the brevity and ponderous pace of the gorilla’s inner musings. It is easy to imagine Ivan looking fixedly at his television, staring at the child pressed up against the glass around his domain, watching the world around him with dispassionate eyes, as the hours drain from the days.
There are bright moments in this tale. Bob, the street-smart stray mongrel, befriends Ivan and becomes his secret domain-mate. They watch tv together, and Bob sleeps on Ivan’s belly at night. Julia waits by Ivan’s cage as her father cleans the mall and furtively draws when she should be doing her homework. She passes Ivan his first ever crayon, and recognises in him a kindred artistic soul. Ruby the baby elephant is incessant in her requests for stories, forcing Ivan to remember and to recount his past, long buried in the tedium of time. When tragedy strikes, it is Ruby who impels Ivan to become the gorilla (and artist) he could have been had his life not been devastatingly altered by that most destructive of life forms – human beings.
Because Ivan’s story is told from his own animal perspective, the tone is not overly moralistic. Nevertheless, it is powerful in its simplicity, and impossible not to draw parallels between Ivan’s predicament and the precarious lives of other species that find themselves at the mercy of humans: the almost functionally extinct vaquita porpoise in Mexico, the critically endangered black rhinoceros in Africa and closer to home, the playful pink dolphins off the coast of Hong Kong’s islands.
If we adults are incapable of learning to live in peace with our other planet dwellers, perhaps our children can. Before it is too late for all of us.
For ages 8 and up.