Stray by A N Wilson - review by Brigid Brophy

Brigid Brophy

A Most Honourable Cat



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I know of only one historical hypothesis that is instantly convincing. I read it in the Autumn 1985 number of The Ashmolean, a lively and scholarly quarterly with subjects as various as the collections in the museum that issues it. An article explored ancient Egyptian representations, including some piercingly beautiful statuettes, of cats: plumpish, sleek and palpably domestic. It recorded the arrival of domestic cats in Europe from Egypt, sketched the theological context in which ancient Egyptian culture set them and traced their probable evolution from two or more species of wild small cat found in North Africa. Wild cats, the article suggested, made their own way into human settlements. Because they killed mice, rats and snakes, the humans did not discourage them. Thus it came about that, alone of non-human animals, ‘the cat may have domesticated itself’.

That process the hero of Stray reverses – and with just cause. From the probable bargain struck in outposts of ancient Egypt it is the humans who are the defaulters. Mr A N Wilson details their treachery here and now, in Britain or in whichever other English-speaking, technology-idolatrous society you care to take for the background of his new novel. The narrative is the oral autobiography of an ageing, seven-year-old alley-cat (‘an “alley-cat” I am and proud of it’), told to one of his countless grandsons, most of whom he does not know or want to. He becomes a voluntary stray. He lives out of dustbins, by hunting and by filching the food put out for stay-at-home cats. He joins a ‘commune’ of strays. The whole group is captured by humans and sold to a vivisection laboratory. The horror of that part of the narrative is that none of it is invented.

Betrayed and tortured by humans, the alley-cat is scrupulous in his assessment of them. It is liberationist humans, brave enough to break the law, who bring about his escape from the laboratory. He praises the ‘good woman’ in whose home he and his brother grow up, though he condemns her and other carnivorous humans’ hypocrisy when she is displeased with the cats’ proud gifts to her of the corpses of birds they have killed. He commends human ingenuity in keeping corpses fresh in cans. He admires the wit of a nun who makes the stray acceptable to a nunnery by letting him pass for female. Perhaps the other nuns belong to the large group of English-speakers that defies biology by assuming that all cats are female and all dogs male.

The better-informed nun remarks that the stray’s ancestors were worshipped in ancient Egypt, and there are unemphasised traces of Egypt strewn through this book. The commune’s boss, tragically unable to protect his underlings, insists on being called Tom-Cat despite the narrator’s explanation that that is merely the generic name by which humans describe male cats. Perhaps he is modelling himself on the ‘Great Tom Cat’ whom, according to the Ashmolean article, Egyptians considered a manifestation of the sun-god. The narrator calls the moon ‘our great Mother-of-Night’, a title that perhaps remembers Isis, perhaps via The Magic Flute.

Keeping in touch with one’s children and grandchildren the alley-cat considers to be a habit of humans, and one that occasions them unhappiness or, at the least, pretence. Towards love he has long held the traditional attitude towards heterosexuality of humans educated at British public schools: that it will arrive, but later. Only his later-arrived love for a female cat prompts him to visit her and the kittens she bears in the ‘heiring cupboard’ of a human household. His unprecedented narration to his grandson is designed to teach him that he is ‘a cat and not a slave to any other creature in the universe’ and to forewarn him that cats’ experience is chiefly of ‘unending and unexplained loss’.

Loss is for the most part occasioned by humans, who claim to ‘own’ cats with power over them of life and death, ease and agony. Perceiving results and not motives, the alley-cat no more conceives of accidental or natural death than he at first did of love. Cars are to him ‘engines of murder’.

He insists that cats are in essence nameless and shrugs off the facetious though fond labels various humans have affixed to him. He finds all humans evil-smelling. Perhaps cats, though predators to their very bellies, which cannot be adequately nourished on vegetable food, prefer the smell of non-carnivorous humans, who presumably do not seem rival and larger predators. Since many cats help themselves occasionally to vegetables, an ingenious and humane chemist would do universal good were he to find a way of making vegetarian food adequate to cats so that a human who nurtures a cat in heart and hearth need not be the effective murderer of animals of other species.

A N Wilson has written a classic in the sense that Black Beauty is a classic. His narrative technique is, however, apt to our age of history. What age of reader, in the sense of aetatis suae, he would consider ideal I cannot guess and it does not much matter. He is apprehensible to anyone literate. His episodic, quasi-picaresque (no rogue, his hero is the most honourable personality the reader meets) story is deeply read-on, funny, moving and exciting. He has devised a largely unlocated idiom that does plausible service for the language a cat might acquire from human associates. Cats’ jokes, as unmistakable as cats’ play (which rests on fantasy), transpose excellently into the narrative’s puns.

Wilson joins the honourable list of established novelists, a list that includes Richard Adams, who have risked their status by using their skill and, most notably, their imagination in order to exercise the imagination of readers on behalf of animals. May he summon them to protest as well as to provide sanctuary. The biographical note that accompanies the volume quotes his statement that the book will have been ‘well worth writing’ if reading it ‘prevents one adult from torturing a cat in a laboratory or one child from tormenting a cat in a backyard, or one family from getting a kitten when they have no idea how to provide for its needs.’

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