I found Rabbit Rap hard going the first time I read it a few months ago. It was easier when I reread it for this review, but it’s still a disappointing book. Particularly when one knows just how good a writer M.A.F really is. At least I was kinder* to it than Ashley Tellis?
A version of this review was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian.
A fantastic (and devoid of humans) world has reached a post-predatorial era. The uninhibited use of a pesticide called UB-Next has killed off many carnivores and driven away the rest. Meanwhile the Fishermen of Urban Lands (FOUL) have been using a laser-guided system to protect their fish, thus wiping out most species of birds of prey. The rabbits, who own most of the farms benefit the most from this state of affairs. Newfound prosperity and a freedom from predators leads to a number of changes in rabbit society—most significantly a move to above-ground dwellings that marks a huge cultural shift.
An uncritical supporter of this new way of life is Rabbit Hab, a farmer and chairman of the Lapin Alliance, who aspires to wealth and social success. He is befriended by Rabbit Fud, a director of the UB-Next company, and is persuaded to become an early adopter of the company’s new product, a fertiliser called Vegobese. He is also keen to move his extended family out of the warren and into modern housing, but is foiled in this by the cunning aged matriarch, Gran-Bunny-Ma. As these new chemical products have unintended effects and things grow more and more out of control, Rabbit Hab and Gran-Bunny-Ma find themselves on opposite sides of a social revolution.
It’s clear from the beginning that Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi’s Rabbit Rap is a work of satire. It’s not always clear what it is a satire of. Ecological issues? We have here the unchecked use of chemicals promoted by big agro-tech businesses causing huge changes in the flora and fauna of a place. Entire species are wiped out, and the food produced by these new methods is pale and tasteless. Capitalism in general? Important decisions are made over games of golf. As UB-Next’s products fail or come with unintended side-effects, they are repackaged as luxury brands, and impressive amounts of spin are applied to make exploding, or radioactive vegetables seem good. Revolutionary movements? The movement initiated by the young rabbit Freddy goes off the rails almost immediately, lacking focus and easily manipulated by a number of people with their own agendas. Is the target of the satire then modern society (“a fable for the 21st Century”, says the subtitle), and can so generalised a subject make for a successful satire? I’m not sure.
Surprisingly, the most sympathetic characters here are Freddy and Rabbit Hab himself. In their own ways, each is the innocent abroad, caught in the machinations of those around him. Both rabbits, though on opposite sides of the conflict, seem to believe sincerely in their respective causes, and neither of them appears capable of understanding the extent (all too clear to the reader) to which they are being manipulated. Rabbit Hab’s desires in life may be simple and material (an impressive-looking modern lifestyle, a less embarrassing family, a membership at a prestigious golf club) but they’re not particularly evil, and they’re easily understood. Freddy’s initial motive is an unattainable crush, yet even as he becomes first an acknowledged leader of the movement and then a scholar, he’s still easily made a fool of. The real political genius here is that of Gran-Bunny-Ma.
And there’s much to be said for the image of the seemingly weak, elderly lady scheming her way to the top by means of a more powerful understanding of the world she’s in. Just as there’s much to be said for the scenes in which Freddy interacts with the “NERD-bred” rabbits; a dynamic as influenced by 1950’s “JD” (juvenile delinquent) narratives as it is by the low slung jeans of Kids These Days (where “these days” are the mid-1990s, it’s all rather dated). But none of this is relevant, or leads to anything. Then there’s a joy in the wordplay where concepts are acronymised and inverted so that FRUMP and NERD are now desirable things to be. But a setting like this offers so much scope for linguistic play that the few instances we get merely serve to draw attention to a more general absence.
It’s too easy to dismiss a story about talking animals as silly or frivolous, unworthy of serious critique. But some of our best works of social commentary have employed animals to make their point. We don’t need to go back as far as Aesop’s Fables; the twentieth century has given us George Orwell’s Animal Farm and (more recently) Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Done well, political or social satire can be scathing and powerful, or at the very least clever. Rabbit Rap is content to be a silly book about rabbits, and I can’t help being disappointed.
* I don’t really believe that a critic’s being “kind” to books is a virtue.