Book Review: A Cat at the End of the World, by Robert Perišić

A Cat at the End of the World is a wondrous study of human society and the institutions of freedom and slavery arising therefrom. It draws the reader forward by means of brief chapters that alternate between plot advancement and commentary by a chorus named Scatterwind. It is mostly Scatterwind who develops the themes of freedom and slavery by noting their origins in human interactions with other species.

As Scatterwind recounts, man learned of freedom from cats:

Cats…caught mice and baby rats, and humans saw that they shared a line of interest. Cats befriended humans by doing what came to them naturally. At first they were mere acquaintances, then some children made friends with kittens and the kittens got used to human scent. When they grew up, they stayed close to their friends’ homes. They were simply there and no task could be given to them except for the ones they did anyway. No one had a reason to tie a cat on a leash because that would stop them from hunting. No one had a reason to teach cats anything apart from what they were already doing, and they saw that cats didn’t want any lessons. There was no reason to stick cats in a cage or close them off in a pen. People didn’t pay attention to whether the cats might leave. They were of no use when tied or trapped, so they didn’t bother. They could be around and hunt mice, or they could leave. Cats remained free. They were there, but were not part of the property….No one, in fact, owned a cat. (p. 133)

Conversely, slavery, or overlordship, was suggested by donkeys.

Maybe donkeys had been the catalyst; they weren’t kept for milk and meat, they were the true first laborers. When the peasants domesticated them down deep by the Nile, in the Nubia, the first pharaohs soon appeared. The donkeys later built the pyramids, together with the slaves. Sheep, goats, and cows had been domesticated before donkeys, but none of them were just workers. Was it donkeys that first gave the idea of a slave? No, not them, but the straw broke their backs, so to speak, and thus man got his idea of a worker. I saw people, those who worked the most, who knew donkeys were their brothers. But slavery, that comes from above. It is the organization from above. (p. 277)

The author’s (and/or translator Vesna Maric’s) style is accessible and fresh. Here are my favorite few sentences:

When [men] stopped believing trees had a soul, they soon stopped believing anything around them was truly alive. It was just matter. I saw that it wasn’t about the existence of spirits…but that it was about life. When human words deny the spirit of something, then it really ceases to be alive. The sprit is true life, and not the body. A body without a spirit is matter: meat, wood. (p. 309)

Like many books with classical settings, A Cat at the End of the World is permeated by a bleak sadness, perhaps born of the foreknowledge that, although freedom may triumph over slavery, its victory is often short-lived, for politics, another “organization from above,” waits in the wings.

Book Review: Hercules, My Shipmate, by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ book (retitled The Golden Fleece) is an argument for the historicity of the Argonauts’ voyage, as he explains in the afterword. The result is a passable adventure story, with a somewhat two-dimensional portrait of human nature.

Those who urge us to read the Classics claim that they contain valuable lessons on human nature, but I find myself dissatisfied by the limited aspects of human nature that they reveal. In Hercules, My Shipmate (as in The Odyssey, I recall), all the characters seem to be consumed by pride (in many cases simply an obsession with virility bordering on machismo) and divided from each other by religious and cultural differences. Consequently, life is shown to be nasty, brutish, and short, with few exceptions. In other words, the lessons on human nature imparted in classical tales soon become monotonous.

A comparison with Shakespearean tragedy is instructive. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragic flaws are personal. In the Classics, they are cultural. In the first pages of Macbeth, it becomes clear that Macbeth suffers from ambition but that Banquo does not. Macbeth thus stands out. In the Classics, all mankind suffers from ambition, as well as from avarice, machismo, lust, and the whole panoply of vices. Some variation is evident in talent – he’s a good archer and she’s a good runner – but not in morality; and all are equally subject to Fate.

One special observation about Hercules, My Shipmate: Whereas today’s writers are discouraged from including extraneous detail, Graves packs it all in. The following passage is typical:

Then [Hercules] marched against Neleus, the baleful brother of Pelias, who lived at Sandy Pylos and had sent troops to the help of Augeas; he killed Neleus and all his sons, except the boy Nestor (who lived to take part in the siege of Troy), and did not even hesitate to attack the Priest of Hades, who entered the battle disguised as a skeleton in the hope of striking a superstitious dread in his heart. Hades had been the enemy of Hercules ever since Hercules had robbed him of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus; but Hercules, undismayed, threw the jaw-bone of a sow at him and wounded him in the side. In this battle fell the Argonaut Periclymenus… (437)

But for all that, the book is engaging, and the fate of Jason (which strikes me as a prototype for that of Meriwether Lewis) is illustrated very symbolically, in a way I’m not likely to forget.