My cat is old and sick. Can a book get me inside his head?

There are elements of the animal within our civilised selves.

Every day, when I wake up and climb out of bed, I get down on the floor where my cat is waiting and press my forehead against his. We both stay there for a minute, breathing through our nostrils, and for years now, that’s how the day has started.

I’ve been trying to pay attention to this moment because I know it won’t be the way it always starts, as the next thing I do is go to the fridge and retrieve the cat’s insulin needle and mix a joint supplement and a painkiller into his food. When my partner and I adopted this cat, he was 13, and the most striking thing about him was his missing eye; he looked cocky, like he was about to wink. Nowadays, he’s almost 16 and as his body declines, the eye socket has become his most stable feature, just a place he likes to be scratched once in a while.

The experience of living with an animal – old or not – is one of difference.Credit:Getty Images

We have good relationships with his vets (plural), who have deep experience in managing the end of pets’ lives; I once asked how we’ll know it’s time, and they said, “Oh, we’ll tell you”. Considering he’s a different species, it’s surprising how much tangible measurement is involved in our shared life; as well as taking readings from his blood and urine and observing his appetite and walking ability, we track his comfort and enthusiasm against visible signs.

But most of the time, the experience of living with an animal – old or not – is one of difference. This profound gulf is captured in a graphic novel by Melbourne writer-artist duo Radha O’Meara and Eloise Grills, whose 2021 comic Dog Park tells of a woman who finds a body while walking her dog and deals with the aftermath along with the dog’s arthritis. “When is the pain too much?” she asks the dog, who looks at her with gorgeous, starry eyes and says: “I can’t tell you.”

I have never been convinced of the functional value of literature – perhaps because most of the people who make claims about what fiction does or doesn’t do are people who, like me, make fiction for a living. But there’s something about the agony and ecstasy of living with other creatures that fiction seems more likely to help us countenance or resolve.

Perhaps it’s a return to childhood, when animals are some of the first creatures encountered in books – and where the promise and danger of transformation that underpins so much adult storytelling is more often literalised through humanoid animals. Sometimes these are humans who change into non-human animals, then change right back again. Often, too, the thrill is in the inter-species communication, which is realised in everything from online furry comics to Laura Jean McKay’s 2020 novel The Animals in That Country, where some animals sound seductive, some desperately needy and some rough as guts.

From arthritic dogs to sickly cats and axolotls, literature helps us understand our non-human companions.Credit:iStock

She and Her Cat by Makoto Shinkai, a novel published in English in 2022, began life as a videogame in the 1990s and made its way through manga and anime forms. Linking four women, their cats and the sometimes roguish other animals that come their way, it is a tender novel that is remarkable not for its creaturely realism – one of the cats sees its owner reading and thinks, “I’d like to learn to read too” – but for the quiet radicalism of its balance of the human and the feline. The humans’ feelings matter, the cats’ feelings matter, and all of them are putty in the indifferent hands of time, which distributes its ravages unfeelingly. In other words, reader, I cried.

At the same time, I was drawn back to a novel I’d read years ago, long before I knew what it meant to be entangled with non-human life. The Passion According to G.H. by Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, is the reckoning of a narrator who squishes a cockroach and then eats the white goo that oozes from its carapace.

It’s a profound novel beyond its excellent, squeamish shock-value because it gets at the oneness between insects and mammals, the injustice of our insistence that we’re different after all. One of the reasons it feels right to search for animal answers in fiction is that humans, when faced with non-human creatures, tend to believe whatever we like, meaning that our ideas about animals and our experiences of fiction both run on the juice of fantasy. But Lispector draws attention to the deep relationship between our rational and irrational lives, and in doing so, shows what’s already animal about our civilised selves.

In the end, the story that most deeply spoke to me was about a salamander. In “Axolotl”, a short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, a narrator begins by telling us that they once thought a great deal about axolotls, going to an aquarium and watching them for hours. In the first paragraph, they explain that “Now I am an axolotl”. The story advances true to their word. The narrator keeps going back to the aquarium, looking at the amphibian’s strangely human-like toenails, getting lost in its golden eyes and “diaphanous interior mystery”. “You can eat them alive with your eyes,” says the aquarium guard offhandedly, not understanding that what’s happening is something weirder still.

In the second-last paragraph, the narrator becomes an axolotl, looking out from the aquarium and into the world. But although the transformation is total, it feels strangely incomplete: “I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man”. If the line between human and non-human is interesting because of how flimsy it is, it’s intoxicating because most of the time it isn’t even flimsy. It’s fictional; it stops existing if you even blink.

Some questions are attractive because their answers are satisfying, others because they lead us to places that are vexing and contradictory. Questions about the purpose of fiction are always the latter kind. Surely, though, a basic condition of life is that we go through it both together and separately; we never reach another being’s unspoken secret, its deep theme. Reading fiction can’t make us more or less like another species. What it can do is remind us that we live in a zone of mystery – keeping us on close terms with that mystery, forehead to forehead, cheek to cheek.

Ronnie Scott’s second novel, Shirley, is out now through Hamish Hamilton. He takes part in On Second Thought, as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

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