Analysis of Animal Crackers



Richard de Zoysa was a well-known Sri Lankan journalist, author, human rights activist and actor, who was abducted and murdered on 18 February 1990. His murder caused widespread outrage inside the country, and is widely believed to have been carried out by a death squad linked to elements within the government.

The poem 'Animal Crackers' is about the riots. The poet through a lesson to a child plays with the symbols associated with the parties to the conflict. To better understand about the poem, you should have a certain idea about the political and social background of 1980’s. By reading the poem Big Match 1983 by Yasmine Gooneratne and the novel, Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai, you will have a better scope about the cause behind the communal riots which grew up to the start of  LTTE terrorism which lasted about three decades. 

This is a ten stanza poem which is separated into irregular sets of lines. This poem has been constructed in such a way that it has a lot of visual depth. The lines are of different lengths, there are portions in all caps, and there are a number commands and lines written in quotations throughout.

Let’s carefully go through each stanza to unveil the mysteries behind the lines. (The poem is a bit lengthy, so it will take a bit long to read.)


ANIMAL CRACKERS

The title evokes the curiosity of the reader; is it about animals? what or who are crackers? There are few animals mentions in the poem: lion, tiger, elephant and jackal. Each animal is symbolically used to represent some groups in Sri Lanka. Poet may have used the word crackers in the sense of whip cracker who controls and manipulate animals in a circus. In traditional processions called ‘perahara’ there are whip crackers who announces the arrival of the procession.    


(For Dimitri, when he is old enough to understand)

The poet writes the poem for a young kid aged three years. It seems that through this small kid, poet speaks to the common mass who do not understand or see the reality behind this communal chaos which had been manipulated and created for political gains which ended up washing the streets with blood. 


"Draw me a lion."
So I set my pen
to work. Produce a lazy, kindly beast .........
Colour it yellow


lion: symbol - Sinhala people
lazy, kindly beast: paradox, metaphor (two opposing words are placed together to describe something or someone)
yellow: imagery, symbol – yellow too represent the Sinhala nationality.

The young kid requests the speaker to draw a lion, so he produces a picture which is totally different from the typical lion. British rulers who governed Sri Lanka too considered the Sinhalese as lazy people who are not that ambitious. Poet’s introduction of the race is quite harmless and lazy than to the expectations. (of whom as you think?)


"Does it bite?"
"Sometimes,
but only when it's angry -
if you pull its tail
or say that it is just another cat ......."
But for the most part indolent, biddable
basking in the sun of ancient pride.


Sun of ancient pride: metaphor (representing the great history behind Sri Lankan civilization. Sinhalese often boast about the glory of their history but many do not learn lessons from that.)
Sinhalese are considered to be proud people. They have a dignity and pride about being Sinhalese and their rich history. If someone try to challenge or work in harmful way, they will not tolerate that. If not provoked, they are considered to be the best hospitable characters by all the world. That is the fact the poet tries to highlight here. Every nation has pride about their race, and this soft corner is exploited by certain politicians to gain their political power. (Throughout the history we experience this.)  


(Outside, the sunlight seems a trifle dulled
and there's a distant roaring, like a pride
of lions, cross at being awakened
from long, deep sleep).


Foreshadowing – showing that something bad is going to happen.
After reading about the background, now you know that some soldiers were bombed and killed by the LTTE terrorists in Jaffna, and during the process of their burial in Colombo, certain gang of people started attacking the Tamils which led to an island wide commotion backed by certain political hands. The poet may be implying that incident showing that somehow or the other the lions have arisen from their long deep sleep. The poet uses the environment to hint the oncoming disaster.  


Then
"Draw me a tiger."
Vision of a beast
compounded of Jim Corbett yarns
and Blake
stalks through my mind, blazing Nature's warning,
black bars on gold.


tiger: symbol - represent the terrorist group of LTTE
Jim Corbett: a novelist who wrote about a Bengal Tiger that used to prey people.
Blake: refers to William Blake who is a romantic poet who celebrates the beauty of a tiger in the nature in one of his poems. 
black bars on gold: visual imagery

The stanza shows the bewilderment of the poet about the concept ‘tiger’. In that period of time, when someone spoke about tigers, one’s mind spontaneously pointed towards the LTTE terrorist group. The picture created by the society is close to the tiger introduced by Jim Corbett than Blake. The images move through the speaker’s mind like a “warning,” and the tiger’s stripes “blaze” as bars of black “on gold.”


"DRAW!"
You turn and draw the gun
on me, as if to show
that three-years-old understands force majeure
and as you pull the silly plastic trigger
all hell breaks loose: quite suddenly the sky
is full of smoke and orange stripes of flame.


DRAW!: word pun - the imperative mode of the word suggests a command to draw a gun as well as draw a picture.
force majeure: French term- an overwhelming force
orange stripes of flame: visual imagery – visualizes the burning flames of fire.

The riots began like a spontaneous act of anger just like the kid pressing the trigger of the plastic gun but that sparked an overwhelming force of racism, destroying millions of properties and lives. The action of the young kid is contrasted by the poet with the action of the ordinary people who acted without thinking of the repercussions. The poet referring to the actions that occurred as an out broke, which had been burning under the ashes, (all hell break loses) and that small incident pulled the trigger to a mass destruction. (by reading the background, I assume that you have already know this)  


BUT HERE THERE ARE NO TIGERS
HERE THERE ARE ONLY LIONS


This might have been the motto of the mobs and the powerful forces behind the scene. The Capitalized words may show the exact word uttered by them.
 

And their jackals
run panting, rabid in the roaring's wake,
infecting all with madness as they pass
while My Lord
the Elephant sways in his shaded arbour,
wrinkles his ancient brows, and wonders -
If, did he venture out to quell this jungle-tide
of rising flame, he'd burn his tender feet.


jackals: symbol -  mobs
elephant: symbol - suggest the ruling party at that time the UNP
the Elephant sways in his shaded arbour,/wrinkles his ancient brows : Visual imagery
jungle-tide of rising flame: metaphor
tender feet: metaphor

The poet is critical about the ruling party who had done not enough to prevent the disaster. The image of mobs madly spreading disaster, the rulers are worrying about their political loss if they resist, generates a realistic picture behind the disturbing scene.  


"Put down that gun. If you do, and you're good,
I'll draw a picture of an elephant.
A curious beast that you must understand ........


curious beast: metaphor - referring to the political leaders who backed the communal riots.

The stanza may be referring to the role of journalists who try to justify things happened. They may be trying to enlighten the common people about the rationality of the actions taken by the ruling party. The speaker trying to placate the child by drawing the picture of an elephant might suggest that. 


DON'T LOOK OUT OF THE WINDOW –


Again use of capitalized imperative shows an open threat or a strong command to the rational people not to intervene the actions happening around. With reference to the previous stanza, this can be a heading of a newspaper article too. 


Just a party down the lane
A bonfire, and some fireworks, and they're burning -
No, not a tiger - just some silly cat."


This again persuades the common people to listen what they are told. There are burnings and killing around their neighbor of which they are given mind soothing news. The real news of mobs killing people and destroying properties are submerged with purpose, the poet seems critical about the distorting of real facts by most probably the ruling parties.

Author's note: The Lion is the heraldic emblem of the Sinhala or the Lion Race. The principal terrorist group in the north of Sri Lanka is known as the Tigers. The Elephant is the party symbol of the ruling United National party. Jim
Corbett has written a good deal about the Indian jungles, particularly about his pursuits of several man-eating tigers.

Richard de Soyza uses his ironical voice to criticize the behavior of contemporary people and the ruling party in the country who set the first spark of communal fire and fanned it into a war. This war lasted from 1983 to 2009 over three decades taking a millions of lives for nothing. The purpose of reading this kind of literature is not to criticize any group of people but to learn the lesson behind it: the futility of war which can only give loss and sorrow.
What are your views on the poem? please do share them in the comment section.

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