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: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.