The Cat Who Came in from the Cold|
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Wittgenstein and the Goshawk
by Patrick Watson
Post Your Opinion
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.