The Cat, by Pat Gray – Book Review By Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
“Here is another of my reviews that was published ten years ago, edited in a manner that I didn’t like. This is my original review, so it’s a bit different from the printed version.”
The Cat, by Pat Gray.
Sawtry, Cambridgeshire, UK, Dedalus Ltd., March 1997, trade paperback £6.99 (124 pages).
U.S. edition: Hopewell, NJ, The Ecco Press, November 1998, hardcover $19.00 (124 + 1 pages).
“A dark comedy with universal appeal, The Cat is the Animal Farm of the post-communist 1990s,” says the American dust-jacket blurb, while a Scottish review of the original British edition says that, “Gray’s reworking of the Animal Farm concept brings in a post-Thatcherite twist.” Animal Farm may live forever, but is The Cat really a modernization of Animal Farm for Britain of the 1990s?
“Chez Maupassant” is the typical British suburban home of the Professor and Mrs. Professor, their pet the Cat, and the presumably unnoticed Rat and Mouse. All live very comfortably, since the Professor is a gluttonous slob who leaves rich food everywhere.
“The cheesecake seemed to glow, luminous and fantastic, as the Professor skillfully slid it off its plate and cradled it in his large hand to prevent it breaking apart as his mouth closed in upon it. A look of childish pleasure crossed the Professor’s face, then a look of guilt, then he rammed the entire cheesecake into his mouth and began to eat.” (pg. 11)
The pampered Cat, the brash Rat, and the peevishly ineffectual Mouse (the latter two living under the house or within its walls) are best friends. Unfortunately, the Professor dies of a coronary three pages into the story (though leaving the fridge open). The animals are mildly distressed, but see no reason to fear a change in their lavish lifestyle — until Mrs. Professor moves to Brighton, leaving the Cat behind.
“‘Moved out, eh!’ said the Rat, drying his paws, and replacing the towel in its pouch. ‘Lock, stock and biscuit barrel. Just like that. I knew she would. Cat! What are you doing here anyway? Mouse said you were in Brighton.’
The Mouse saw the Rat appraise the Cat’s downtrodden air in one swift glance, and saw him note the slight dusty pallor that now clung to the Cat’s normally glistening coat.
‘Cat’s been told he’s got to f…f…f…end for himself,’ said the Mouse significantly, regaining his voice.
‘Fend for myself,’ repeated the Cat. His eyes were veiled and hurt. ‘I mean I don’t know on what.’ The Cat shrugged expressively at the spot where the fridge had stood, its position marked by an oblong scatter of sticky crumbs and bright-coloured linoleum.” (pg. 36)
As the animals realize that they must fend for themselves, their friendship is strained by basic instincts:
“Some memory of upbringing stirred in the Cat’s mind: rats were dirty, rats were diseased. Although the Rat wore a waistcoat, the Cat believed he could still smell the drain and the outfall. The Cat began to wash himself very slowly. The wind strengthened, whistling in the silent telephone lines that reached from beneath the eaves of ‘Chez Maupassant’, making them sing.
‘Now see here Cat,’ began the Rat, edging himself closer, his tail nonchalantly laid out behind him in a perfect, motionless line.
‘I don’t have to talk to you,’ said the Cat jumpily. The nerves in his forepaws twitched uneasily, making the fur flex as if a fist were being clenched inside a warm winter mitten.
‘We need an understanding,’ said the Rat.” (pgs. 28-29)
The three tacitly agree on a personal nonaggression pact. Instead, each tries to win the support of the animals in the nearby houses and fields. The Cat appeals to their self-interest in a Capitalistic manner, selling them individual portions of ‘Chez Maupassant’’s garden (which he has no rights to), while the Rat (with the intellectual Mouse in tow) harangues them about animal solidarity like a Labour leader:
“The Mouse busied himself setting up a small card table while the Rat paced to and fro, folding the notes for his speech into various shapes […]
‘There’s a few of them here, at least,’ said the Mouse. The animals stood, stamping their feet, and coughing in the cold; a few Moles, a gang of field-voles, the Mouse family from the house next door, and some creatures from the meadow beyond the fence that the Mouse took for squirrels.” (pg. 47)
The Cat decides that since humans have all the benefits, he will impersonate them. He learns to speak English by imitating radio broadcasts, and charms Mrs. Digby, the next-door neighbour. He orders new furnishings for ‘Chez Maupassant’ over the telephone using the Professor’s credit card:
“‘Where’s he getting it all from?’ whispered the Mouse.
‘This is fraud. Classic short-termism. It won’t last. We’ll be back to square one in no time at all,’ said the Rat grimly, his eyes following each new item as it appeared, and was tallied by the Cat (who would remark from time to time that this or that item might have been slightly marked in transit, or be worth a few bob, or perhaps be needed in a different shade of beige or pink.)” (pg. 84)
But it does last. Eventually the Cat carries his faux humanism too far, trying to drive a car and getting smashed up. The book ends with the Cat having returned to cattitude as Mrs. Digby’s pampered pet, while the Rat with the Mouse as his secretary take over running the run-down, unsaleable ‘Chez Maupassant’:
“The Rat yawned. The Mouse poked the fire by his feet. The Rat sighed. It had been another very tiring day, he thought. The Rat sighed again. As time went on, he was finding the administration of the garden harder; the constant rows and arguments which seemed to erupt about the exact needs of field voles, or the special requirements of pregnant moles, arguments which were not only dull, but exhausting to resolve. He would try to make fair decisions, but everyone would complain, and then he would change his mind, and then …” (pg. 123)
A British Animal Farm for the 1990s? Well, the easy life under the Professor can be taken as the strong economy of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. But Thatcher was succeeded in 1990 by John Major, also a Conservative, until 1997, the year that The Cat was published. The economy may have gradually declined, but there was no big disaster that caused a dramatic capitalist/labour split. So where is the Orwellian parallel? In any case, The Cat is undeniably a sophisticated talking-animal fantasy, and an exceedingly British one, at that.