Love in Objects: The Museum of Innocence

Love in Objects: The Museum of Innocence

BY TESSA AYSON

The Museum of Innocence is located in the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, conceived of in tandem with its eponymous novel by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. It is set up across three floors, each no larger than a few small feet wide and a few tall people long. The objects are organized into exactly eighty-three boxes, which correspond to the eighty-three chapters of the novel. This novel spans eight years of obsessive love, charting protagonist Kemal’s ruminations on the nature of life and love. He falls in love with his cousin, Füsun, but their relationship is doomed before it even begins; Kemal is engaged to another woman. He breaks off the wedding, loses Füsun as well, and spends the next eight years pilfering items from Füsun’s family household where he eats dinner every night with her family.

The objects that Kemal collects ward off the profound melancholy that threatens to overwhelm him, and he is able to take solace in their comforting aroma and touch, knowing that Füsun has touched the very same surfaces. “Sometimes I would see [the objects] not as mementos of the blissful hours but as the tangible precious debris of the storm raging in my soul,” Kemal tells the reader, whom he addresses personally throughout the novel. Eventually he wins Füsun back, only to watch her die in a fatal car crash a few short weeks later. The novel culminates in Kemal’s hiring of Orhan Pamuk to carry out the museum project that is to commemorate Füsun.

The Museum’s collection could well have been curated by a nighttime spirit ransacking the pages of the novel, making away with the objects described within its pages and depositing them in the tiny, tottering, nondescript family apartment that is the home of the collection. There is something unearthly in the still air of the Museum; excessive noise is discouraged, and the objects hang in their boxes, dangling from invisible string, suspended in time and space. The Museum itself seems similarly suspended, tucked away mere minutes from the sensory-pummeling madness that is Istaklal Caddesi. Lilting Turkish and stilted English, wafting smells of roasted chestnuts, the clicking of shutters and noisy people doing noisy things in noisy excitement – all of this explosive, living energy subsides as you step off the street and into the Museum.

Through the novel’s expansion into the spatial realm, these eight years of longing are marked not through days but through objects, and by endowing the objects with the ability to track the movement of time itself, Pamuk gives them a unique power. Through the displays we learn that time is nothing more than a way of charting change in form – form of objects as well as living things. The constancy and stillness of the collection is therefore all the more haunting, a beautiful illustration of the suspension of time that Kemal endures throughout his separation from Füsun, his lost love.

The absolute ordinariness of the objects, the cigarette butts, tickets, and jewelry that comprise the exhibits, is the focal point of their magic. The objects expand beyond the realm of the novel into real life, disrupting our awareness of real versus fantasy. Imagine your favourite book being made into a film. Seeing the words lifted off their page, entering a three-dimensional space, becoming concrete, solid visual images, is always a disconcerting feeling. Now imagine that same feeling, but with the objects there—right in front of you, not separated by the mediation of cinema.

In his accompanying museum catalogue, Pamuk discusses the “massacre of objects” in Turkey that occurred as society’s focus in the mid twentieth century shifted towards Western ideals and the remnants of its Ottoman past were destroyed, leaving behind an “eerie emptiness”. For Pamuk this massacre is a societal and cultural threat; because of his belief in objects’ spiritual importance, the massacre effectively destroyed a large portion of Turkish history. Istanbul was once the centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire, the East and West combining to augment its might. But the same east-west fusion that previously made Istanbul so powerful now seems to be working against it. Istanbul is balanced on the geographical divide between Europe and Asia, teetering like a tightrope walker on dotted map lines.

The sense of melancholy that resulted from the dissolve of this empire encompasses all of Turkish society, Pamuk argues, and is manifest in the resolute solitude of the objects. They are neither Eastern nor Western, but very specifically Turkish. Raki, the national alcohol, is displayed, as well as çay, the ubiquitous national tea. There are Turkish newspaper articles and photos; one particularly powerful box shows a collage of images, seventy or eighty newspaper pictures of women with black bands over their eyes to conceal their identity. If a man tried to escape marrying a girl he slept with, her furious father would take the unfortunate male to court and the press would publish the poor girl’s photo with the concealing band so as not to besmirch her honor. The same band was used for prostitutes, adulteresses, and rape victims. Pamuk uses this piece to illustrate the terrifying complexities of dating in 1970’s Turkey – put a foot wrong, and end up as another lost identity in the masquerade of hidden faces.

The Museum’s displays elucidate the subtle beauty that exists within the ordinariness of everyday life, the banality of newspapers and food and drink and odd family photos that do not belong to Pamuk. In a curious parallel to the novel, where Kemal pilfered objects that belonged to others, Pamuk acquired many of the objects that form the collection from the tiny antique stores around the Çukurçuma neighborhood. These oases are magical in themselves; they are crammed to bursting with tottering remnants of the past, curated by tiny old men drinking sweet tea. Dust forms a thick barrier between the past and the present, coating every surface and permeating the air itself with the thick smell of ageing. These stores are a treasure trove of Turkish identities hoarded by quiet shop owners. You can buy someone’s jewellery, cutlery; even their personal family album, peeling black-and white photos stuck onto thick, cracked pages. Pamuk has made full use of this eerie transplanting of identity, appropriating the possessions of unknown people to tell a story that necessarily becomes the story of a much larger social context.

The objects perfectly encapsulate the city’s split soul. They are quintessentially Turkish, and therefore draw upon the influence of the East and the West as well as something else that is defined by Istanbul alone. Wandering the neighboring districts of Istanbul is an utterly bewildering experience. In less than a minute of traversing cracked pavements, all the sights, sounds and smells accosting your senses change radically. One moment, the streets are cobbled, a charming, eclectic tapestry of mismatched bricks that catch your ankle because your face is upturned hungrily, soaking in the beauty of the piled-up apartments and the little old ladies traversing dizzying flights of stairs with pounds and pounds of fresh groceries. The next moment, you emerge into a bustling hub of high-powered businesswomen, barking into iPhones, toting Gucci hold-alls and tottering in stilettos that would certainly not hold up to the patchwork cobblestones of a street that lies thirty seconds’ walk away.

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The museum’s exhibits capture this interplay between the scarves and the stilettos. There is a serendipitous beauty in the mundane, the teaspoons and saltshakers and used cigarettes that form the essence of the collection. However, there is nothing serendipitous in their organization; the objects are painstakingly arranged, each telling their own specific tale, both consolidating and extending the novel’s detailed commentary on Turkish society and the ‘[two] souls [of Istanbul that] are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other.’ (Orhan Pamuk, 2005 interview). These dual souls seem to have taken up residence in the still coolness of the Museum, showing themselves as transient reflections that shimmer across the polished glass exteriors of the exhibits. There is a quiet certitude in the precision of the collection, a knowledge that mourns the loss of everything that has been and will be.

I cannot think of a more literal and powerful example of the phrase ‘bringing an object to life.’ This museum is no small artistic endeavor; it represents the melding of two genres, two times and two genres of artistic expression. It is this last melding that I find to be most interesting, that of the transition between two very different art forms. The novel has been translated into tens of languages, but this particular translation, from the flat off-white pages crammed with words to the evocative three-dimensional representations of the complicated process of love, is certainly its most powerful.

How, you may ask, does one craft a representation of love from teaspoons and cigarette butts?

A valid question indeed. The answer lies in Pamuk’s extraordinary attention to detail; he takes into account the minutest descriptions, down to the colour of Füsun’s lipstick, changing each day she smokes her favourite Samsun cigarettes. 4,213 of these cigarettes are mounted in an installation on the ground floor. Each is pinned to the display, encased in glass; next to it is a number and a date in spidery, scrawling black ink. Many of the cigarettes are stained with lipstick, all of varying shades of pink and red. Taking in details like these feels like the times when you wake up from an afternoon nap and completely forget where you are and what your name is. Everything is blurred; details are slippery and hard to grab a hold of. Perhaps, as you are examining the spectrum of lipstick colours, a shout from the fruit vendors that clatter up and down the cobblestoned streets outside the museum will catapult you back into reality, and you will ‘wake up,’ confused as to whether you live inside the pages of a novel and whether, just perhaps, Fusün is a real person with a real addiction and a lot of different lipsticks.

 

Photo courtesy of author

Lauren Groff Reads at NYU Abu Dhabi

Lauren Groff Reads at NYU Abu Dhabi

 

We are delighted to announce that American author Lauren Groff, author of several novels, including Arcadia (listed as one of the best books of 2012 by The Globe and Mail, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times).  Ms. Groff will be reading on Tuesday, February 26th, at 6:30 in the NYU Abu Dhabi campus garden.  (Click here for a map to campus, and here for The National‘s review of her novel.)  The reading is free and open to the public. We hope to see you there!

[Illustration by Darya Soroko]

The Open Door

The Open Door

A SHORT STORY

“Take a passenger?”

“Yes, get in, quickly. They might strike again.”

Zaid Hussein climbed into the dusty front seat of the armored truck, beside a shabbily dressed middle-aged man at the wheel. Hardly had he settled himself when the truck stuttered forward once more, leaving behind clouds of sand in its wake.

“The name’s Jamail Sheikh. I saw you limping there on the road, and, from the uniform, you seem to be one of our militants. You brave men need all the support you can get.”

Hussein nodded gratefully at the man, clutching his bleeding right thigh. The excruciating pain of the wound suppressed his tongue. He shut his eyes, grasping rare seconds of respite …

It was in the dead of the night when the first American drones descended upon Iraq, forever shattering the tranquility of the country. Zaid Hussein, staying with his wife and two daughters in a village on the outskirts of Baghdad, was one of thousands ordered to join the militant regime. Going from an agriculturist to a militant – from a spade to a gun – Hussein couldn’t have been unhappier to leave his family and his village. But an order was an order, and Hussein was in no position to refuse.

Situations had changed, and Hussein futilely searched within himself for a ruthlessness that had never existed. It wasn’t the tough conditions of the militant camps that got to him; the battle with his own conscience was a far greater deterrent.

That very morning, a sudden airstrike had engulfed Baghdad. American planes threateningly circled the stormy skies, bringing with them the powerful missiles of a country thousands of miles away. No sooner had the first missile struck than Hussein began scourging the streets, sacrificing his own body to help his Iraqi countrymen. Screaming at the top of his voice, Hussein caught men and women by their arms and shepherded them toward indoor shelters where the airstrikes could not reach them. In the midst of this mayhem, one of the aircraft bullets had found its target. The pain was splitting, but Hussein struggled on, only resting after he had taken a child safely indoors. And then, just as suddenly as the airstrikes had begun, they subsided. The aftermath was heart-wrenching – disembodied limbs strewn haphazardly on the streets, bloodied mothers with their crying infants in their arms, families broken apart by the single push of a button ….

Families … Hussein jerked involuntarily in his seat. It was all down to the weight of that one word that Hussein had decided, then and there, to flee from Baghdad.

“Are you alright, friend? Is there anything I can do?” The scruffy, but worried tone of his companion brought him back to the present.

“Yes … Yes, I’m fine. Just take me outside Baghdad,” he said, wincing as the truck hit another bump on the road.

“Sure thing, I was heading outside myself. Where to? The camp in Baqubah?”

The question startled Hussein. His heart sank as he realized that as long as he was still wearing his familiar military uniform, he couldn’t escape to his village. He would have to continue behaving like a militant for now.

“Yes, you can drop me off in Baqubah. But, before that … I would love to meet my family, after such a lon — ”

“Say no more, I understand. Are you sure you won’t need anything for that wound? It looks painful.”

“It looks worse than it is. Really.”

To Hussein, the pain of the wound was incomparable to the pain of not knowing whether his family was safe or not. He craved to see his wife once more – his beautiful, supportive wife. She had been silently against his departure, but she knew that the country needed him. And then, there was his four-year old daughter. The idea of war was beyond her. To her, her Baba was going on a trip, and would return soon. At least, that was what Hussein had told her. He wished for it to become true as much as she did.

Hussein ran his left hand through his hair, while he clutched his thigh with his right hand.

“What are you doing, driving a truck in times as troubled as these?” he said, asking the question which had been playing on his mind since the beginning of the ride.

“Well … See those crates stashed at the back?” Jamail said, pointing towards the back of the truck.

“They contain AK 47s. I deliver them to camps throughout Iraq.”

Silence. Hussein was stunned to the hilt; here he was, fleeing from a militant camp, and he had hitched a ride with the very person who supplies weapons to these camps. Jamail would surely not settle for anything less than dropping him right inside the Baqubah camp.

“Why are you so taken aback?” Jamail asked, charily.

“No reason. It’s amusing to think that those harmless looking crates have AK 47s in them!”

Hussein swallowed nervously. Jamail looked at him, and then guffawed.

“Right you are, friend!”

Hussein, momentarily reassured, looked outside the window. They were fast approaching his village. Though he hated to admit it, Hussein was slowly coming to grips with the fact that the trapdoor of his escape had been forced shut on him. He couldn’t give Jamail the slip, and now it was too late for him to pretend to be someone else. Yet, Hussein infinitely preferred to meet his family this one time, than not at all. He couldn’t allow himself the comfort of thinking he would escape again; the terrible facet to being a militant was that Hussein had to prepare himself for each meeting as if it were his last.

“There, that’s my village!” said Hussein, pointing forward. He immediately looked for any tell-tale signs of any wrongdoings; he delighted in the fact that there were none. Smoke curled out from the chimneys of the households, men stood hunched in their fields, taking care of their crops, and children ran about in the streets.

The truck slowly skidded to a halt, in front of a house indicated by Hussein. He climbed out as fast as his wounded leg would allow him, and shouted out loudly to his wife and daughter.

The door opened slightly, and a face peeked out – a disbelieving, skeptical face, which quickly transformed into one resplendent with joy. The door was thrown open. Hussein’s wife and daughter came running out and threw their arms around his neck, weeping with ecstasy.

“My loved ones, don’t cry… We’re all safe, and that’s what matters. I’ve decided to give my life to protect Iraq, the people in Baghdad need my services more than any field would. Shhh, Tanya, don’t cry, Baba will be back soon, sooner than you know… no love, I can’t stay for long, my friend is waiting fo –” Hussein turned around.

But the truck was gone.

A small distance away from Hussein’s village, Jamail Sheikh smiled to himself. He worked for a living by transporting guns to militant camps, and he knew a militant when he saw one. Zaid Hussein could never be one.

 

Mohit Mandal is a first-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi. This story was awarded first place in the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, part of the 2012 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, held in last March in Dubai.

Next week: Award-winning poems from the festival by NYUAD students.

Cats

Cats

ESSAY
BY ZHENG ZHENDUO (1898-1958)

TRANSLATION
BY MARK SWISLOCKI

Three Translations: Reflections on Pets in Chinese Letters

The following essay is the first installment in a series of three translations I have undertaken in conjunction with my class, “Animal, Culture, and Society.”  I teach this course, which examines traditional and modern formulations of human-animal differences in Chinese, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian letters, as part of the core curriculum in “Structures of Thought and Society” at NYU Abu Dhabi.  My choice of these three essays, drawn from a larger pool of writings on which I am currently conducting research, was somewhat random, but as I’ve worked on the translations, I’ve been struck by a number of notable areas of overlap and patterns of historical significance.  All three essays draw on long-standing tropes of nature, the human, and the animal in the history of Chinese letters that remain little understood, whether in terms of their formal literary operation, their potential impact on actual human interactions with nature, or their relevance for Chinese of more “modern” times.

The first essay, “Cats,” by Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), evokes a well-known (to Chinese readers at least) exchange between the early Confucian philosopher Mencius and King Xuan of Qi on the subject of human conscience.  When Zheng, at the end of “Cats,” notes that his conscience (liangxin) has been pierced by the two arrows of his own rage and abusive behavior, he is alluding the core Mencian concept of the “compassionate heart” (also liangxin), which Mencius posits as a component of human nature, albeit one that humans are not always capable of acting on, or not always aware they are acting on, as was the case with King Xuan.  That this concept would be evoked by a figure of the iconoclastic May Fourth/New Culture Movement suggests that if Chinese intellectuals imagined “Science” and “Democracy” as the future bases of a strong Chinese nation-state in the twentieth century, Confucian concepts might yet guide humans toward forms of non-nationalistic community, or even to what might be called today a form of planetary community.

In the two essays to follow we find a similar parsing of place and culture, albeit through distinctly different conceptual formulations.  Feng Zikai’s (1898-1975) “Tadpoles,” for example, offers a variant of what Philip A. Kafalas has termed “Chinese Nostalgiology,” varieties of which I have also previously explored in a study of culinary nostalgia.  In Feng’s essay, we find that nostalgia is no mere category of pathology, but one with a critical edge that allows Feng to examine the ways in which the built forms of the city shape human perception.  A master illustrator and painter as well as a prose stylist, Feng evokes a number of ocular metaphors to suggest that, in the city, both humans and non-human animals are subject to processes of distortion, largely visual amplification, that may confuse humans, at least, of their respective essential natures.  In more subtle ways, the essay also appears to allegorize the life of the kept tadpole as a figure of the politically stunted Chinese intellectual.  When Feng teaches a group of children how to properly raise tadpoles, the larger lesson speaks to the challenge facing the modern Chinese nation-state of learning how to properly foster a climate of open political discourse.

Children figure prominently in all three essays, most explicitly in Taiwanese writer Chen Guanxue’s (Koarnhak Tarn, b. 1934) “My Daughter’s Insect and Bird Friends.”  The presence of children lends to all three essays a slight tenor of children’s literature (Zheng’s “Cats” has in fact been anthologized in middle school texts in the People’s Republic).  But the essays are ultimately about childhood and encountering nature.  No sooner does Chen’s daughter acquire a new insect or bird friend than she names it, a common enough act of course, until we learn that her names are part of a larger overall system of ordering nature on a model of human social organization.  Chen’s essay is ultimately a celebration of his daughter’s remarkably healthy relationships with her animal friends, which he compares most favorably to the general unhealthiness of human sociability.  One is still left wondering, however, if the impulse to name, a key component of the ordering of nature in general, remains for Chen a limiting concept, one that reifies both social hierarchy and the notion of a human-animal divide.

As should soon be evident in the short student reflections that will accompany the translations, these few topics barely begin to scratch the surface of the meanings of these essays, and of what they have to teach us about not only animals, but of animals as components of “Structures of Thought and Society.”  None of the essays translated here push the envelope on the concept of the non-human animal so far as to explicitly posit animals as social agents, as urged by some recent contributors to the emerging field of Animal Studies.  All, however, register non-human animals as what might be called “actants” (to borrow a term from Actor-Network Theory) and thus demand their incorporation as such, and not merely as objects, into social theory.  In this regard I am doubly-grateful for the opportunity to teach in the NYU Abu Dhabi core curriculum: first, for the chance it provides to design a core course on social thought that is not only globally comparative but also potentially posthumanist in scope; and second, for the need it creates for the translation of wider varieties of world literatures than core curricula have conventionally demanded.
“CATS”

[Click here for a PDF of the original Chinese text.]

My family has raised quite a few cats, with the final outcome always either disappearance or death.  Third Sister liked cats the most, and she often played with them after coming home from school.  One of them was a kitten she brought home from next door.  It had grey fur and was very energetic, and it often rolled around in the sunlight on the front veranda, looking like a snowball speckled with mud.  Third Sister would often drag a red ribbon or a length of string back and forth in front of the cat, and the cat would pounce first in one direction and then the next.  I would sit on our rattan chair watching them and could while away and hour or two of daylight with a smile on my face.  The sunlight was warm then, and I felt full of the freshness and joy of life.  Then, for some unknown reason, the cat suddenly started losing weight.  It wouldn’t eat a thing, its lustrous pelt turned grimy, and the cat lay under a chair all day in the parlor, unwilling to come out.  Third Sister came up with all kinds of ways to play with it, but the cat ignored them all.  We were all grief-stricken.  Third Sister even made a special trip to buy a tiny copper bell, which she tied to a red silk sash and dangled underneath the cat’s neck.  But somehow the bell seemed unsuitable, as the cat simply lay there, lifeless, lazy, and dejected.  One afternoon, when I came home from the translation bureau, Third Sister exclaimed, sadly, “Big brother, the cat’s dead!”

I also felt a tinge of grief at the loss of our pitiable and yet perfect companion of the past two months.  All the same, I could only comfort Third Sister by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you another one from somewhere.”

A few days later Second Sister came back from our uncle’s house in Hongkou.  She said that they had three or four kittens over there, that they were a lot of fun, and that they were about to give them away.  Third Sister wouldn’t stop pestering her to go and get one.  Then, on Sunday, mother came home and brought one of them with her, brown all over from head to tail.  Third Sister was immediately taken in by this little brown kitten.  This cat was even more fun than the last, and livelier too.  It would run all over the courtyard, jump through the tree onto the surrounding wall, and then jump down to the street into the sunshine.  None of us could rest assured that it was safe, and all day long we’d ask each other, over and over again, “And the kitten?” “And the kitten?”  It always took us a good while before one of us could finally find it.  Third Sister would point her finger at it and scold it, but with a smile on her face, saying: “Kitten, you’re never going to learn your lesson about running off, not until some beggar steals you!”  But whenever I came home for lunch, I never failed to find the kitten sitting outside the front gate.  And as soon it saw me walk inside, it would dash inside after me.  My after-lunch entertainment was watching the cat climb the tree and take cover in the dappling sunlight amid the green leaves, if as it were lying in wait to catch something.  No sooner would I bring the kitten back down and let it go than it would climb right back up again.  After two or three months, it learned how to catch mice, and once, to our surprise, it caught a really fat one.  From that point on, we never had to listen to that irksome sound of their screeching any more.

Early one morning, after I’d gotten out of bed, put on my clothes, and gone downstairs, I didn’t see the kitten anywhere.  I looked around the courtyard, but still there was no sign of it.  Then I had a feeling, a premonition of loss.
“Third Sister, where’s the kitten?”

She ran downstairs in a frenzy and answered, “I was just looking all over and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Everybody in the family hurried about looking for it, but the cat did not turn up.

“When I opened the door early this morning,” Sister-in-law Li said, “the cat was still sitting in the parlor.  It only disappeared once I started cooking.”

Everybody was upset, as if we’d lost a beloved companion.  Even Aunt Zhang, who’d never really liked the kitten, said, “Such a pity!  Such a pity!  Such a sweet kitten.”

I still felt a ray of hope, thinking that it had just randomly run off to some faraway place and might be able to make its way back home.

At lunchtime, Aunt Zhang announced: “I just ran into the Zhou’s servant next door.  She said she saw the kitten outside this morning, and that it was taken away by a passerby.”

And so the loss was confirmed.  Third Sister was very unhappy and mumbled, “They watched it happen.  Why didn’t they stop it?  They knew it was ours!

I was also upset, and incensed too, and I repeatedly cursed the anonymous person who stole our object of affection.

After that, our family didn’t raise cats for a little while.

One winter morning, a truly pitiful kitten lay curled up outside our door.  It had grey fur but wasn’t the least bit attractive, and it was terribly skinny.  It just lay there and didn’t move.  If we hadn’t taken it in and cared for it, at the very least it would have died from the cold or hunger.  Aunt Shen brought it inside and fed it every day.  Only none of us really liked it.  It wasn’t energetic, and it didn’t like to wander around mischievously like other cats did.  It was as if this kitten were congenitally melancholic.  Even a cat-lover like Third Sister didn’t pay any attention to it.  Several months passed like this, and the kitten remained the animal of the house that might as well have not been there.  It gradually fattened up, but it never livened up.  Whenever we all gathered to chat on the front veranda, the kitten would come over and curl up under mother’s or Third Sister’s feet.  Third Sister would sometimes try to play with it, but she wasn’t as interested in doing so as she had been with the previous two cats.  One day, taking cover from cold night air, the kitten tucked itself underneath the stove, only to burn off several patches of fur.  Now it was even uglier.

Come springtime, the kitten had grown into a strong cat, but it was still just as melancholic, and still wouldn’t chase mice.  It just lay around lazily all day, eating itself fatter and fatter.

Around this time, my wife bought a pair of yellow canaries and hung them on the veranda.  Their chirping was beautiful.  My wife was forever instructing Aunt Zhang to change their water, give them more bird food, and wash the cage.  The grey cat also seemed to have taken a special interest in the birds, and it often jumped up on the table and stared into the cage.

“Aunt Zhang, watch out for the cat,” my wife would say: “It’ll eat the birds.”

Then Aunt Zhang would hurry over and move the cat away.  At little while later, it would jump back onto the table and stare into the cage again.

One day, as I was coming down the stairs, I heard Aunt Zhang shout out: “One of the birds is dead.  Its leg was bitten off.  There’s blood all over the bottom of the cage.  Could something have bitten it to death?”

I quickly ran over, and indeed one of the birds was dead.  There were feathers scattered all over the place, as if it had put up a valiant struggle against its enemy.

I was furious and shouted, “It had to have been the cat!  It had to have been the cat!”  And then I promptly set out looking for it.

My wife overheard and also ran downstairs.  She was terribly sad when she saw the dead bird, and remarked, “What else could it have been if not the cat that killed it?  Always staring at the cage.  That was why I was always telling Aunt Zhang to be careful.  Aunt Zhang!  Why weren’t you more careful?”

Aunt Zhang was silent, unsure how to defend herself.

Consequently, the cat’s evil disposition was now established as fact.  Everybody started looking around for that wretched animal, eager to mete out an appropriate punishment.  We looked all over the place but couldn’t find it.  I became convinced that it had actually “absconded to avoid punishment.”

Then Third Sister called out from upstairs: “The cat’s right here.”

The cat was lying very peacefully in the sun, right out in the open on the balcony, though it seemed to have something in its mouth that it was still eating.  I thought to myself, it had to be that pitiful little bird’s leg.  Overcome with rage, I grabbed a wooden pole that was leaning against the side of the door, and then chased after the cat and beat it.  “Me-ow!” the cat howled mournfully, before jumping onto the roof.

I still felt furious, thinking that the punishment hadn’t been decisive enough.

A few days later, Sister-in-law Li hollered out from upstairs: “The cat, the cat!  It ate another bird.”  Then and there, I saw a black cat jump straight away over the balcony railing, a yellow bird clenched between its teeth.  I started to think that I’d been wrong.

I felt absolutely miserable.  I had a wounded conscience.  I hadn’t judged clearly and had issued a hasty verdict, wronging an animal that couldn’t speak in its own defense.  Recalling how the cat had run away without putting up a fight, I felt even more deeply that my rage and abuse were in fact two arrows, two arrows that had pierced my own conscience!

Oh how I wanted to make up for my mistake, but the cat couldn’t speak, so how was I supposed to explain my misunderstanding to it?

Two months later, the cat suddenly died while up on the neighbor’s roof.  That loss, compared with the previous two, was much harder for me to bear.

I would never have an opportunity to correct my mistake.

After that, our family never raised cats again.

Shanghai
7 October 1925

Mark Swislocki is Associate Professor of History at NYU Abu Dhabi.

[Translation © 2010 Mark Swislocki.]

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