One of India’s most original and controversial novelists returns with a powerful parable

There’s a certain kind of reader who’s gotten this far in the magazine but remains distracted, a little worried, wondering: how much is this little goat going to suffer? So very wrong, why bother with such a story? Why go to literature to encounter suffering? “The Story of a Goat” answers that question with more grace, wit, and feeling than any book I’ve come across in recent memory. We go to such stories for the relief of honesty; seeing what is hidden brought to light; recognize, if only here, the pain regularly inflicted on lives normally considered too insignificant to be the subject of much literature.

And how the little goat suffers. She watches her playmates get castrated when they reach sexual maturity. She falls in love. (Murugan writes a staggeringly effective goat sex scene.) The old woman refuses to be separated from her little pet, however, and Poonachi is separated from her beloved. She burns with rage against her human mother. She is raised, violently. Famine grips the earth.

The peculiarities of this society slip into history. Each new baby – human or animal – must be counted and its ears pierced. Farmers and ranchers face harsh questioning over the parentage of their creatures – especially those in possession of black goats, which are viewed with hostility. Originally published in 2016, the novel seems prophetic, anticipating India’s new law that grants citizenship to migrants on the basis of religion, turning it, in effect, into a Hindu nationalist state.

Murugan traces his little goat’s entire life — his desperation, his small acts of heroism, his longing — with Chekhovian clarity. Each sentence of Raman’s supple translation is modest, sculpted and clean, but behind each you sense a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of rains, politics, behavior – human and animal. It was Chekhov who once said that anyone could write a biography of Socrates, but it takes skill to tell the stories of all the little anonymous lives.

“Once, in a village, there was a goat,” the book begins. “The birth of an ordinary creature never leaves a trace, does it?” We are all such ordinary creatures, Murugan reveals; if any of our fugitive traces remain, we leave them in each other’s hands.