Sometimes you’ve read so many learned texts that all that learning gets jammed in your head like a cupboard in the bend in the stairs. Civil-society organisations try to get it moving again by forcing an extra advisory report or two into the cracks in your brain, but the whole thing is stuck solid. Only a cat – the smallest subject of literature – can slip through the only gap left, between the stairs and the cupboard, between the frontal lobe and the writing.
The cat is happy to take advantage of this precarious situation. More than that, she feels it is her right that everything is about her. Spoiled as she is, she is convinced that everything happens just as she wants it to. Doors that open by themselves, the boiled fish that drops from the sky and lands precisely on her plate.
Outside in the garden, she has just jabbed her mighty paw into the air and plucked a blackbird out of nothing. After toying with it for a bit, she has brought it indoors and now she is surprised. The surprise is not intellectual, but biological. She didn’t actually know that this is what she wanted. She waves a lazy paw in the direction of the bird, which is screeching in silence.
For the bird, this is no small matter. The cat has half torn his right wing from his body, his head is at a strange angle and he finds it impossible to turn it back again. In a final surge of passionate denial, he has thrown himself against the walls of the hall, red streaks of blood are flowing down the white wallpaper, vomit and spit are smeared across the cellar door. He can see it vaguely through his yellow-ringed eye and doesn’t understand it. Or rather – ‘understand’ is a big word for a bird – he didn’t know that this was possible. He is doing this for the first time, this dying, and because of the unbearable pain, he has come to a halt halfway through the process.
In the hall, at the bottom of the stairs, stands a tired man. ‘Long nose / silly clothes / no paws / useless claws.’ An American cat once described him in these words, in a translation by the poet Paul Gallico, and it’s a pretty accurate characterisation. He is standing there, completely useless and ineffective. A strange still life in the hall; between the silent screeching, the blood, the fur and the waving paw, the man’s motionlessness is the strangest of all.
Outside the world is beautiful. Summer is coming to an end; the trees are full and ripe, with a hint of autumn and the scent of black pepper, stables and vanilla. Water birds bob up and down on the moat around the castle. The hallucinatory light-green carpet of duckweed is adorned with white down, which looks divine, but is probably the remains of a young duck. Caught by one of the birds of prey that you see hovering above the landscape and scouring the ground with their sharp eyes. The animals they hunt are slower than usual this year. It may be a disease, say the farmers.
The man thinks. That is, after all, what he does. Even though he has visions of himself as an active being. He sometimes thinks of buying a gun and putting it in the boot of his car, in case he runs into a wild boar one night on a deserted forest track and, for the sake of decency, has to put the beast out of its misery. The romantic idea of himself as a saviour runs through his head. A saviour with a gun. If he had a gun now, he would shoot the bird.
Meanwhile, the cat has become very satisfied with herself. With good reason, as she has nature on her side. And not only that. Art and culture are behind her, too. People worship her, artists praise her in odes. Poets say that cats love their neighbours as much as God. This piety is based on the fact that cats play with their prey and so give it a chance to escape. Sometimes, the prey takes that chance, and succeeds – ‘one mouse in seven escapes’. The cat lies smugly in the hall and playfully takes a swipe at the dying bird; when the man moves, she takes it as encouragement.
The bird screeches, but still no sound comes. He flaps his wings wildly, but is unable to fly. His head gasps for breath on his broken neck; he has forgotten how only a few moments ago he was sitting on top of the roof and singing so sweetly. The still life in the hall explodes; the soundless screeching of the bird reverberates throughout the house, the blood flows wildly down the walls. The harmless man comes closer; he thinks of his gun and the white down on the bright-green moat. Until he no longer thinks and does what he has to do: seeing that death will not come, he becomes death himself.
By Maxim Februari
Translated by Andy Brown
Extract from DE ONBETROUWBARE VERTELLER (‘THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR’)
Published by Prometheus (2019)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Maxim Februari is a writer, philosopher and columnist. He is the author of the novels Klont and The Book Club, as well as several columns and essay collections. The Making of a Man: Notes on Transsexuality was published in English translation in 2015, and was subsequently translated into Spanish and Turkish. In 2020, he received the P.C. Hooft lifetime achievement award and C.C.S. Crone Prize for his complete works.
Andy Brown is a translator specialising in Dutch. His many translations include Maxim Februari’s The Making of a Man: Notes on Transsexuality. He lives in the Netherlands.