Robert Perišić: Hodati kao mačka (A Cat at the End of the World)
There are a few characters who are key to this novel but not all are are human. I must admit when I first saw the title I thought the book would be one of those children’s books about an endearing but brave household pet. It is not so do not be put off either by the title or the narrators.
Our human hero is Kalia. His mother has died and his father has disappeared. He is brought up by Liburna, so called because she comes from Liburnia in modern-day Croatia. However we learn that her real name is Menda. They currently live in Syracuse in modern-day Sicily. No dates are given but it seems to be set in around 400-390 BCE. We follow him from a very young age and he gradually learns that he is a slave and then learns what a slave is. Menda’s son is dead and she is not sure about her daughter. They are owned by Sabas and Kalia learns that, in his dealings with Pigras, Sabas’ son, Pigras must always win.
Menda, as she prefers to be called, takes Kalia to an old man to learn to read, knowing that it will help him in later life. He is surprised to find how letters work. This is by no means the only place where language plays a role in this book.
Meanwhile we have met the second character a wind spirit. It is a specific wind, though it moves around. It had learned various human languages. Initially It despises humans for their weaknesses but is impressed when it realises they understand winds when sailing. It is interested in the relationship between humans and dogs, humans and cats, and cats and dogs but will comment on many aspects of human behaviour, both in general and as regards our protagonists.
The third character is the eponymous cat Miu. Cats are rare in Syracuse and have become a fashionable playthings for the rich and their children in Syracuse. However they must be Egyptian cats, which are tamer than forest cats from Greece. A sailor has smuggled one (illegally) out of Egypt and sells it to Sabas. However Miu immediately takes to Kalia and remains more attached to Miu. Pigras cannot accept this. After all he is the boss and Kalia a mere slave and the cat should grasp this. She does not, even when Pigras feeds her. Things get out of hand and a fight ensues, leaving Kalia (and Miu) no alternative but to flee.
There are also mention other animals that play a role, in particular the donkey mentioned below but there is also another cat. I would mention in passing another donkey, though she plays a minor role but enough of one to have her sex identified.
Kalia and Miu manage to survive but have to be careful because it is likely that Sabas is looking for him. When some ships are planning to leave for the eponymous end of the world, i.e. Sea of Chronos, which we know as the Adriatic Sea, and specifically Liburnia, where they are planning to build a new settlement, Menda urges Kalia to hitch a ride. He has been staying in the stable of his teacher (unbeknown to the teacher but known to Mikro, the donkey who lives in the stable where Kalia and Miu sleep), so decides Mikro needs liberating as well and takes him along.
Here and elsewhere, with the wind making a major contribution to the debate, we get into the whole of issue of slavery and it extends to the exploitation of animals by humans . The wind comments I think that people, because they domesticated animals that served them, thought the whole of the Earth could be their servant, and even found among their own species those whom they could own.. The wind is not terribly impressed by slavery and exploitation of animals. This will become a far bigger issue when they get to the end of the world and Mikro is expected to work very hard.
Philosophising is key here. Teogen, Kalia’s boss, is very upset that his son has gone off to join Plato, as Teogen considers practical hard work more important than philosophy, though we find him occasionality indulging in a bit of philosophy. However it is the wind who is the philosopher in this book: I saw the loneliness of man. This soul who proclaimed that others didn’t have a soul. Then this soul wondered at its loneliness in nature, dived inside itself and sought the truth.
Though of course, they are not mentioned, I feel that Perišić may well have had the Balkan Wars, following the break-up of Yugoslavia, in mind. There are several closely related themes here. The first, of course, which appears throughout the story and which the wind frequently comments on, is that humans seem keen on exploiting both other humans and animals. I saw that when humans stopped walking and settled, they started to consider everything in terms of ownership. While humans were in motion and collecting and hunting their food, ownership wasn’t on their mind because wherever they were, they’d be leaving the next day. While not particularly an issue in the story, the wind mentions the fact humans are particularly keen on enslaving people of another colour but are happy to enslave people of the same colour. From that he leads on the fact that people should intermingle. The Greek colonists to Issa/Vis are mainly male and they have to mate with the local women to continue the species. We also see this issue with the animals.
The other key theme is about the colony. It is clear, through the character of Kalia, who grows up during this book, that we should grow up with a sensible aim in life but we need to be careful that that aim does not cause harm to others and is beneficial to what he calls the polis, i.e the community as a whole but also to the wider world, i.e. the natural environment. When they stopped believing anything had a soul except for them, an emptiness enveloped the polis and When they stopped believing trees had a soul, they soon stopped believing anything around them was truly alive. These are, of course sensible precepts for anyone anywhere but probably particularly in former Yugoslavian countries.
So how did it all go wrong? Perišić has his culprit. Aristotle’s way of thinking won because it gave humans all of the rights of rulership over the Earth, it created a huge void. There was no logos in anything—reason and language, spirit—except in humans. But there is another reason. The wind goes to Pompeii, after the eruption, when archaeologists are digging it up. Then they thought, even some scholars, that at the time they didn’t have cats. There are no cats in Pompeii.. No cats and you are doomed.
First published in 2018 by Sandorf
First English publication in 2022 by Sandorf Passage
Translated by Vesna Maric