A Tabby-cat’s Tale by Han Dong (translated from Chinese with care by Nicky Harman) gives us a glimpse of the current structure of Chinese culture. The novel takes place in a Nanjing multi-story apartment building. A family consisting of a mother, her two sons, and daughter-in-law live in a limited space but are harmonious in their interactions. The family has enough income to live comfortably given the circumstances of life at the edge of a modern Chinese city.
When a beautiful little kitten is brought into the home by the sister-in-law, all remains peaceful and the cat adds color to the family experience in the apartment. Cousin Coco, a child who lives downstairs, importunes Tabby’s family to let him take the cat to his family’s apartment for a few hours. Granted permission, the cat is taken and returned. Tabby is a different cat when he returns, reclusive, unloving, careless in urinating and defecating, and failing to groom himself. The family is mortified by the filth and odor created by the now ugly cat, but they are powerless to control him. The reader begins to see that this is truly “Tabby’s Tale” and that the cat uses his main character, the second son, to communicate his feline existential condition. The human narrator is a naïve but reliable observer of the cat’s behavior that reveals the complex inner state of the once beautiful cat.
The tale becomes tragic due to continued mal-appropriate behavior of the tabby cat when stressful events occur in its life related to legal mandates. For example, the cat is prohibited from living on the roof. Tabby is heroic in his effort to endure hardships complicated by his own self -defeating actions. The actions are the result of his “disappearance” and failure to adjust to the regimented and restricted lives of his human characters. The reader gets caught up in the narrative created by Tabby and hopes for redemption in the form of cat’s ability to love himself and his human family. Is Tabby successful in recovering from his victimization during Coco’s “cultural revolution” and learning to adjust to maintain personal freedom in a restricted social environment? It is indeed an interesting tale.