From the squalid alleys of Beijing, two cats with cutesy names end up as coddled pets of foreigners. All is well till one of them takes up a job to model for cat food, much to the consternation of the other. The two cats drift apart only to come together in the end by a fortuitous twist of circumstances.
Nothing exceptional about this, but journalist Pallavi Aiyar uses the stories of the felines deftly to tell the story of the conundrum that is China in her new book Chinese Whiskers. Aiyar, who worked as a reporter in Beijing and is a cat lover, is also not short of experience.
Portraiture: Through a story of two cats, Aiyar touches upon China’s wealth and its xenophobic underbelly. Photo by Frederic J Brown/AFP
Through the stories of Soyabean and Tofu, Aiyar touches upon China’s well-known fault lines, quirks, follies and scandals: a xenophobic underbelly, an iniquitous society, the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and irrational fears about the virus’ origins, rampaging capitalism, one-child policy, tainted cat food and Mao’s catastrophic experiments with cultural indoctrination and backyard industrialization.
And there are the humans, mostly greedy, unscrupulous slaves to Mammon pitted against the few good people, notably Nai Nai, a kind, cat-loving septuagenarian widow who is predictably disillusioned with, and estranged from, the go-go world of modern China. “All that is good in China and noble about being Chinese they reject,” she says of the youngsters, before descending to banalities about generation gap—the young laugh at classics, find poetry boring and calligraphy a waste of time, watch too much TV, prefer the discotheque to the theatre. Her son tells her that the Chinese “need to be more practical”—calligraphy doesn’t make money, and poetry doesn’t buy cars. “But what is the value of money without poetry? What use is a fancy car when you lack a soul? Is practicality of more value than beauty?” wonders Nai Nai. These are valid, but unexceptional concerns in most societies, and to single out the Chinese is a tad unfair.
There is nothing redeeming about the bad humans, like Nai Nai’s son Xiao Xu—he yanks cats’ tails, pinches them, there is no “kindness in his eyes”, he smiles in a “disturbing way”, and has endless mobile phone conversations about “real estate and deals”. In sum, he is a stereotype of China’s spoilt new rich, whom the poor detest. So a dishevelled migrant worker building a giant Olympic stadium in Beijing tells one of the cats that Deng Xiaoping’s history-altering aphorism that the colour of the cat didn’t matter as long as it catches the mice hasn’t quite worked for a lot of citizens—or cats, if you will. “You will see there are no mice to catch for the peasant cat at all,” says the worker. “The fat cats in the city gobble them all up, leaving nothing for the rest.”
Chinese Whiskers is a limpid and slight fable of modern China, hobbled by a weak plot line and dry prose. In parts endearing and almost always earnest, its characters are unambiguous, and the story bereft of atmosphere and drama. The stilted dialogue, and a denouement which promises much and delivers little, make it a tepid offering.
Aiyar—and her cats’—bleak vision of China as a soulless capitalist haven is not nuanced enough to make the novel a gripping fable of one of the world’s most complex societies, which has oscillated from one extreme to another with wide-ranging consequences.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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