Original here. `And I must confess that until I stumbled across it I had forgotten reading this book or writing this review.
The anthropomorphised animal is a staple of children’s media, especially TV shows and films, so much so that we barely notice it. Even such paradoxes as why Goofy can speak but Pluto can’t pass by unnoticed; so familiar is the technique of humanising animals that giving them a pet, even of the same species, is a logical progression. Adult-focused anthropomorphic fictions are rarer, at least in literature (though not in mythology) and tend towards fable and allegory. From Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, anthropomorphism is used to smuggle in or sweeten unpalatable observations on human society. Sometimes this results in great literature, but more often modern allegories are clumsy and po-faced.
Albert of Adelaide tells the story of the eponymous platypus, an escapee from Adelaide Zoo, and his adventures in Old Australia, which he had previously idealised as a human-free paradise. Albert is haunted and infuriated by memories of his captivity, and the perpetual eyes watching his every movement. Further back, his capture from a simple life along the Murray River was even more traumatic.
The story begins with Albert, days march north from Adelaide, delirious and seeming ready to die. He encounters Jack, a wombat who rescues him and becomes his companion of the initial part of the narrative; Jack gives Albert canned sardines, makes camp with him, and clothes him. Jack also brings him to a remote general store/saloon called Ponsby Station, run by Sing Sing O’Hanlin, a vicious kangaroo. Here Albert’s strangeness both attracts the unwanted attention of other customers and becomes a protective factor, setting a pattern for the rest of the story.
What follows is a curious tale of Albert’s wanderings through the landscape of Old Australia, with various fauna as anthropomorphised friends or antagonists, with his captivity and prior capture still haunting him. Howard L Anderson does a good job of capturing some of the frontier spirit of Australia (it is somewhat difficult to work out when the story is set) which remains, for all its cosmopolitan cities, a land of huge untamed territories. His prose style is generally clear and engaging, and sometimes unobtrusively lyrical although the richness of the Australian argot is rarely captured (the characters do sporadically deliver themselves of such Ozisms as “fair dinkum”).
But what does it all add up to? Unlike Watership Down, to which the book is compared on the blurb, Anderson does not construct an elaborate platypus-centred world view, and with the animals wielding guns, operating saloons and toting backpacks there is no claim to any kind of natural history verisimilitude of even the most rudimentary kind. The characters occasionally indulge in observations on “difference” and “otherness” which are uniformly trite, and Albert’s self-reflections similarly fall flat. Albert is something of a cipher; one feels that Anderson intends him as a sort of accidental picaresque hero but his characterisation is not developed enough. There is a pointlessness about the whole endeavour which ultimately left me rather cold.