HOME  |  CONTACT US  |
 
The Cat Who Came in from the Cold

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
107 pages,
ISBN: 0345478665

Wittgenstein and the Goshawk

by Patrick Watson
145 pages,
ISBN: 1552784495


Post Your Opinion
Beastly Understanding
by Barbara Julian

These stories, both subtitled "A Fable", are witty, delightful and tinged with sadness. Appearing in print simultaneously, both are by well known writers whose combined careers embrace psychiatry, animal studies, history and broadcasting. Each writer decided to use this particular genre to enlarge on things they have spoken of before in adult non- fiction, and to employ animal protagonists to look at relations between animals and humans and what such interactions show us about positive values like honesty, loyalty, freedom, cooperation and companionship.
The stories include accurate details about species in their habitats, but they also occupy the literary territory of fantasy with animal characters who speak. As well as representing themselves, the creatures are employed to represent human archetypes, as animals have done in literature since Aesop, and more recently in the works of Richard Adams, Hans Christian Andersen, George Orwell and a host of others. In the lyrical, comical sadness with which they give us a hopeful ending against a general background of loss, both stories bring to mind E.B. White's lovely classic, Charlotte's Web. Like Fern in that story they help us see that we too could hear animals speak if only we took the time to pay them the attention they deserve.
The goshawk of Watson's title is Astur the Magnificent, a hunting hawk from a royal mews in Czarist Russia. When the revolution does away with the old order, Astur and her handler, once a prince, escape to New York City. But New York is no place for a hunting hawk, so Prince Vasily must take Astur up-state on a ferry and release her into the wild. We first meet her there, fending for herself, hunting down a hapless hare in the snowy woodland. It's a scene which Watson describes with such skill and verve that we simultaneously cheer on both the starving hunter and the terrified prey. This is the way, I believe, Watson has sought to present history in his documentary career: the successful narrative is one that makes us identify with both the "winners" and "losers" of the past.
Eventually Astur the goshawk¨now aging, tired and hungry¨encounters Wittgenstein, an escaped budgerigar who, after the initial ecstasy of freedom passes, also longs for the comfortable home he used to have with humans. A goshawk would in reality gulp down a budgie like a bonbon, but this budgie speaks the royal language of French as it was spoken at the Russian court, sparking in the old goshawk a long emotional reminiscence after which she comes up with an idea to help them both. Everything ties together very neatly in the end as fate conveniently brings together the birds' human protectors (the prince and a language professor) because they too share a love of French. When the budgie returns home he alights on the windowsill "looking very happy." When my cat waits in our garden for human family members to come home and then brings up the rear after the last human has entered the house, her whole body radiates relief, and like the budgie she "looks very happy." I don't know how exactly, and yet she does. I'm sure that a reader with a companion animal whose moods she is attuned to will understand just how the budgie looked in Watson's story. In fact, both Watson's and Masson's stories are perfectly suited for that kind of reader¨child or adult.

Jeffrey Masson has explored this theme before in several non-fiction books on animal behavior. With a background in psychiatry, he is interested in what the human mind has in common with that of other species: in terms of its processes, senses and emotions. Here he creates a cat who stands in for all cats and whose thoughts reveal how this most private and independent of animals became the domestic familiar of humans, while still retaining its wild savagery as a hunter of birds and mice.
Masson's protagonist lives in India, where apparently cats were first domesticated. He is called "Billi", which is Sanskrit for "cat". As a non-herding animal he likes solitude, yet he is lonely. He has been watching humans from a safe distance¨as the spy suggested by the title¨and sometimes, as he observes them in their warm houses before the fire with their pet dogs, he feels sadly excluded. He watches, and yet he doesn't trust. He decides to do some empirical research. He goes on an epic journey around India, asking all the animals he meets what they think of "the two-foots" and what they get out of associating with them. The answers they give are a catalogue of misery and cruelty; the water buffalo, dog, cow, elephant, parrot and mongoose associate with humans only because they are forced to. "The two-foot has yet to be born who understands the souls of animals," says the elephant.
Why then is Billi drawn to them? How could he hope to become the only animal to enjoy a mutually satisfying relationship with them? What exactly does he want? With this question the story gathers momentum. "A richer and more complex life," is Masson's answer ("something essential in the cat world may be changing"). So although Billi learns that humans "[are] guided by ignorance, prejudice, self-centredness and greed," he is driven to run back to his own village to try for their friendship. But only on his own terms! In what reads like the Declaration of the Rights of the Cat, he stipulates that "I must be allowed to come and go as I please, they must accept me as I am, and they must not try to confine me (or) I will plot my escape."
Billi goes home and presents himself fearfully to a two-foot, wisely choosing a child. When the girl, as amazed as he is, strokes his fur, Billy produces his trump card: he purrs. By using the device of the fable we take it that Masson means to convey a serious message with a light touch. He succeeds in this dual purpose. He makes Billi an amusing character but takes him on a tour (luckily cats can get in anywhere) through the temples of somber religions¨Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism¨creating an opportunity to show how human piety and morality have managed to leave compassion for other species out of their circle of concern.
Watson's Wittgenstein also goes on an epic journey¨truly epic for a frail little budgie¨ and he too makes us think about the balance between freedom and danger on the one hand and comfort and confinement on the other. Watson means for us to relate those contrasting longings, which run through all sentient lives, to our own choices as human beings. He does so with playful humour, whether describing the Russian prince whose only splendid uniform now is the uniform of a doorman at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, or relaying the conversation of the vultures Wittgenstein overhears ("I found a gulley where a farmer is throwing away pork guts. Wait a day or two then it turns green (and) you know it's ready to eat. Fresh meat is the most revolting thing I ever heard ofÓ") Both of these books are perfect read-alouds with appeal for all ages (I read them to a spell-bound teenager). They are attractive small-format hardcovers with amusing black and white illustrations in the margins but they should not be categorised as gift books if that label suggests the charming lightweight. They both do just what George Eliot said fiction is meant to do: they enlarge the sympathies, with the added distinction of enlarging them beyond the confines of the human species.
footer

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us