Rabbits and Boa Constrictors – Fazil Iskander

….a stubby boa suddenly interrupted the Great Python. This particular boa was known for his unceasing inquisitiveness, which had already led him to swallow bananas instead of rabbits, and he had even had the audacity to convince others that they were rather tasty. Fortunately, none of the other boas followed this example of free thinking. Nevertheless, the Great Python found unpleasant, almost a morally depraved freak.

In the plains and forests of Africa there are all manner of creatures, including monkeys, rabbits, boa constrictors, and the natives. They all inhabit roughly the same territory, but each lives in its own society. The kingdom of the Boa Constrictors is ruled by The Great Python, Tsar of the Boas, and famed for his prowess in hunts, with his lair decorated with the trophies that include the Native in the Prime of his Life. The other boas respect and fear their ruler and prepare food for him, usually by hypnotizing their favorite prey, rabbits. On the other end of the spectrum, the rabbits live in a society where the king preserves his position through fear of the boas and hope of the delicious cauliflower being developed with the natives in secret fields. Even the royal banner is a head of cauliflower. The king hosts orgies in his palace most nights and his rewards his immediate circle lavishly from the royal coffers, but most of the population is kept in check through fear of the boas, a fear that is managed by mathematical proofs that if the rabbits multiply then the odds diminish that any one rabbit will be eaten by the boas.

The relationship between the boas and the rabbits, while not peaceful, is stable and to the satisfaction of both rulers, but both fear the same disruption: that the rabbits will no longer accept their position in this relationship. It is for this reason that the Great Python has decreed that the greatest crime a boa can commit is to allow a rabbit go once swallowed. Squinter, a one-eyed boa, knows this punishment all too well, and when detailing it to a younger colleague, he is overheard by Ponderer, a rabbit who is better at thinking about the world than he is at farming. Ponderer determines that boa hypnosis is nothing more than rabbits being afraid and tells this to the community. Although he is betrayed by the king, his mantle is taken up by Yearner and the rabbit kingdom is thrown into disarray. The normal rabbits learn that they do not need the king to protect them from the boas and it is become increasingly apparent that the cauliflower is not forthcoming. Both societies adapt, but eventually both sides conclude that things were better in the old days.

Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, first published in 1989 is an allegory about political societies, albeit without overt reference to specific countries or economic systems. Both systems present in the book use fear and promises of luxury to keep the populations from thinking about how much better their lives could be. Manipulation is the overriding theme, but the stratifications and evils of manipulation are more pronounced in the rabbit kingdom. The inner circle indulge in food and pleasures of the flesh, while he exploits the ambitions of rabbits to keep others in check and to ensure that troublemakers are taken care of. At the same time, the king has constructed an elaborate web of guards and guards of the guards that he feels he must micromanage to keep his position. Potential voices of opposition receive literal carrots to keep quiet and everyone else gets promises of cauliflower, and a pseudo-scientific calculations about the boas to keep And yet, the precautions are all for naught.

The core moral of Rabbits and Boa Constrictors would seem to be to not allow societies strictures and superstitions to keep one from being free thinking. Yet both societies go into something of a decline as a result of free thought, and food becomes scarce. While this might indicate that free thinking also entails some measure of danger, in both cases it is not the free thought itself, but the lengths taken by the state to resist that thought that brings about the decline. Iskander is also not one for giving a single clear message in this book, but prefers to offer more questions and issues than answers. Rabbits and Boa Constrictors was a quick and enjoyable read that gives plenty to think on.

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Next up I decided to challenge myself (again) and jumped into War and Peace. I am about 10% in and not yet regretting the decision entirely, but we will see when I get to read something else, particularly given that the new semester is about to start.

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