Talking With Animals/Speech Without Words: Review of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale — Melissa Armstrong
Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat. —Melissa Armstrong
A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages; $2.99
Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat.
Han Dong’s Tabby may not be the stereotypical hero, but he nevertheless derives from a line of similar characters in literary history. The author’s portrayal of Tabby fits quite nicely alongside the hilarious and often eyebrow-raising wit J.R. Ackerley employs in My Dog Tulip. Published in 1965, My Dog Tulip describes the tumultuous but unconditional sixteen-year love affair the narrator shares with an untrained and sometimes downright stubborn Alsatian bitch — who bites, barks excessively, gets booted from several public places, including a veterinarian’s office and a grocery store, and delivers a litter of pups in a London flat.
In Han Dong’s story, separated by thirty-five years and seven thousand miles, we meet Tulip’s soul mate, a cat named Tabby that lives and dies on a seventh floor apartment in Nanjing, China. In A Tabby-cat’s Tale, we follow a Chinese family’s eight-year plight, taking care of their feline, who despises people, doesn’t use a litter box, has fleas, and often displays violent behavior. At one point, the cat scars the sister-in-law for life when he swipes her nose with his “fearsome claws.” But, amusingly, instead of finding another home for Tabby, the family goes to extraordinary lengths to make life comfortable for the cat, cooking him special fish-gut soup and starting a war with the neighbors so that Tabby can live on their apartment complex roof.
Like Ackerley’s portrayal of his dog Tulip, Han Dong hilariously depicts Tabby with vivid descriptions of the cat’s bad habits. In terse, sometimes lively (vulgar) language, Han Dong exposes all of Tabby’s faults, such as his failure to use a litter box:
With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough as it was, but having to find the mess made it even worse. Tabby was a master of hide-n-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on.
Or his flea-ridden coat:
My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it on a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour, or so the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.
Ironically, the cat’s incontinence and fleas don’t stunt the family’s affection one iota. If anything, as the cat’s eccentricity increases so does the family’s obsession. At the crux of this irony — the crease between the family’s growing tenderness and the cat’s oddities – is where Han Dong achieves some of his greatest comedic moments.
Tabby’s story is told by a first person narrator, but over the course of the cat’s eight years, he has four different caretakers, the sister-in-law, the brother, the narrator, and his fiancée Xulu. Each character shares the same desire: to care for Tabby. In fact, people’s extraordinary reactions to Tabby’s weird habits are as comical as the cat’s behavior. The sister-in-law, the feline’s first steward, relinquishes all household responsibilities, working afternoons then returning directly home, in order to cook fish-gut soup for Tabby and rid his coat of the dreaded fleas. When the childless sister-in-law dies – on her deathbed — she bequeaths the orphaned cat to her husband.
In turn, the brother treats the feline like a son. The narrator relates: “After that, no matter how much my mother complained about the fleas and the cat’s crazy behavior, ripping the sofa to shreds with claws and eating all the plants on the veranda down to their roots, my brother turned a deaf ear.” At one point, the brother, realizing that his care can never equal the standards of his wife’s maternal instincts, searches for a replacement with qualifications to serve as a stepmother to his feline. The family’s fixation with their pet cat pinnacles when the narrator and his fiancée move into the seventh floor flat and become so obsessed with Tabby that they forego everything else in their lives.
There was clearly something wrong with the way we were living our lives. I wondered if Tabby had put a spell on us. He looked so young, and I had never seen a more handsome cat. The markings on his face gave him an aloof beauty, and it was this, rather than pure boredom, which absorbed our attention. We would spend hours at a time on the balcony, forgetting to eat or go to work.
Born in 1961, the author Han Dong lived through China’s Cultural Revolution; as a child, he was exiled along with his family to the countryside to live and learn among the peasants. This experience heavily influences his first novel Banished!, which won the Chinese Novelist Prize in 2003, a PEN Translation Award, and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. Before Han Dong pursued a full-time literary career, he studied philosophy at Shandong University and subsequently taught in Nanjing and Xi’an. Currently, he’s known as a poet, editor, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and blogger.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way the narrator’s philosophical — almost scientific — commentary turns a quirky tale of an odd cat into a sophisticated story about the fascination and frustration of communicating with animals. A Tabby-cat’s Tale and My Dog Tulip are anecdotal accounts of the puzzling behavior of a cat and a dog, but simmering beneath the antics of these animals is the complex problem of language. How can we understand creatures that don’t speak?
Early in A Tabby-cat’s Tale, Han Dong concedes that people can never truly comprehend animals because we don’t share a language. When the novella opens, Tabby acts like a playful kitten, but after an afternoon spent with a neighbor, Tabby returns home transformed into an antisocial feline. The narrator is away when Tabby changes; he’ll never be able to simply ask the cat what caused his drastic personality switch. And yet:
…the truth is that even if I’d been at home, I couldn’t know everything that happened to Tabby. He was just a cat, to be found under the bed or along the walls, living a life that was completely separate from mine. Besides, he couldn’t speak our language, and a cat’s thought and needs can never fully be understood by humans, no matter how carefully they pry.
This grasping for meaning outside the conventions — and freedoms — of a shared language replays itself over and over again throughout the novel and appears in every character entangled with Tabby. Whether it’s the neighbors rummaging through the feline’s perceived hiding spots on the roof or the fiancée hanging her clothes above cat feces so they absorb the smell, each character tries to predict the animal’s motivations but fails. When the narrator becomes Tabby’s primary caregiver, he sheds all daily tasks and begins writing A Tabby-cat’s Tale, while his fiancée manically fills their flat with doodled drawings of felines. Yet, ultimately, even they can’t truly comprehend the object of their fascination.
The theme of frustration with communicating outside language also appears repeatedly in My Dog Tulip. In scene after scene, whether deciphering the dog’s preferred pooping spots or finding a stud for Tulip to mate, Ackerley struggles with his inability to understand what his beloved dog is trying to say. And even though both authors understand the futility of their efforts, they never cease yearning to discern the unknowable.
In the last few pages of Han Dong’s novella, the tone turns deeply philosophical as the narrator, at his obsessive peak, contrasts his humanity with Tabby’s nature. Afraid the cat has cast a spell over him, the narrator discovers pleasure in Tabby’s ordinariness, such as when the cat tries to cover his “turds” with invisible cinders or when the fiancée catches him “wanking.” As the narrator struggles with his fanatical attraction, he also succumbs to the mystery of it.
And yet, in the end, the narrator answers his own preoccupation. When the cat “threw up violently,” instead of calling an ambulance that would have whisked an ailing human to a hospital, he lets Tabby’s illness linger until it’s too late, and he dies. After all, he’s only a cat.
Melissa Armstrong lives outside Nashville, TN with her husband and five dogs. Currently, she’s working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes a blog, TheFarnival.com, about her efforts to rescue and rehabilitate animals in the rural south.