The Paradise of Cats by Émile Zola.
|Le Rendez-vous des Chats by Edouard Manet (1868).|
My aunt bequeathed me an Angora cat, which is certainly the most stupid animal I know of. This is what my cat related to me, one winter night, before the warm embers.
What follows is a very short story, just five pages long and divided into six chapters, on how this cat yearned to be outside on the rooftops, and what happened when he escaped. The cat describes himself as two years old, fat, simple, and spoiled. He spends his time looking out the window and one day sees four cats on the rooftops fighting, lying around, and generally enjoying the sun. Soon after, he discovers a window to be open and nips out:
How beautiful the roofs were! They were bordered by broad gutters exhaling delicious odours. I followed those gutters in raptures of delight, my feet sinking into the fine mud, which was deliciously warm and soft. I fancied I was walking on velvet...
The other cats approach him and his delight is mixed with anguish, for which they tease him, but he is more or less accepted into the gang and even meets a beautiful "she-cat". However our poor fat cat struggles after an hour with no access to food. When he sees some meat on someone's kitchen table he attempts to steal it but gets a thoroughly hard whack for his efforts, and is told by one of the other cats that he must not do that again and should wait until nightfall before he can eat. When night comes, bringing with it the cold and rain, he finds he misses his blanket. In an effort to find food another cat is almost killed by a man, and our cat laments how his situation means he cannot eat but may be "roasted" by a human. It is too much, and he wants to go back home, and his friend the tom cat anticipated as such and remembered where he lived, and so accompanies him. Our cat, once home, invites him to live with him in comfort, but the tom is having none of it;
"Hold your tongue," he said sharply, "you are a simpleton. Your effeminate existence would kill me. Your life of plenty is good for bastard cats. Free cats would never purchase your cat's meat and feather pillow at the price of a prison. Good bye."And off he goes, and our cat receives his punishment at the hands of the aunt. The story ends,
You see - concluded my cat, stretching itself out in front of the embers - real happiness, paradise, my dear master consists in being shut up and beaten in a room where there is meat.
I am speaking from the point of view of cats.
This is a great little tale! The most obvious thing to say on it is that it is one of those "the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence" tales, not unlike Aesop's The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse from Aesop's Fables (7th Century B.C.). And staying with Aesop a moment, there's also The Domesticated Dog and the Wolf in which the dog leads a comfortable and easy life but is still imprisoned. As the wolf observes,
"Farewell, my friend," said the wolf, "You're welcome to your dainties, but for me, a dry crust with liberty will always be worth more than all the luxury a king with a chain could ever provide"
A direct echo of the tom cat in Zola's tale. There is another interesting and less obvious analogy: The Paradise of Cats has some slight and subtle similarities with Zola's later novel The Belly of Paris (1873). Our angora cat is fat, and in The Belly of Paris this was equated with leading a bourgeois existence. That novel contrasted the moral and social lives of the fat and the thin (hence one of its alternative titles The Fat and the Thin), the thin being those who the fat ought to be suspicious of and vice versa. In The Paradise of Cats the fat is the unnatural one, imprisoned by his comforts as the fat of The Belly of Paris, who are mentally imprisoned too by the Second Empire. The thin ones are the free ones, as in The Paradise of Cats, but still they do suffer for their freedom at the hands of the bourgeois, who beat them if they dare steal the food they need to survive.
|Angora Cat (c. 1874).|