Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ella Maillart "Ti-Puss" & Sandor Marai "Un Chien de Charactère"


Neither Ella Maillart’s “Ti-Puss” nor Sandor Marai’s “Un Chien de Charactère” are currently in print in English. This, I think, is more than a coincidence – the English-speaking world being as ravenous for pet tales as it is nowadays.

Ah, you ask: But are these uplifting tales, stories of overcoming adversity, disabilities, abandonment and bad behavior? Well, not really and that might have something to do with it.

For in her delightful tale of life in India with a cat, Maillart lets Ti-Puss Minou run free, hunt and breed as she will (drowning or wringing the necks of at least half the littermates), takes her for walks in which the cat following her is always an uncertainty, travels in packed trains with her and generally allows her to be a semi-feral animal.

World traveler Ella Maillart lived in India for five years (1940-45) in order to study Hindu philosophy – however, following the Indian guru’s teachings on detachment became doubly difficult for the author when she began sharing her life with an animal that absolutely fascinated her. She couldn’t help but want to possess her and yet it was Minou’s wild nature that enchanted her.

Now, taking in consideration some hateful comments I’ve seen on sites directed at cat-owners who so much as allow a whisker outside the house, I can’t imagine “Ti-Puss” going down too well with Americans, not to mention the kitten-killing (but remember, this was the forties and Maillart actually tried to get someone to spay Ti-Puss, which proved impossible).

I enjoyed this book that brought to mind Konrad Lorenz’s description of the happiness he felt with the two cats that allowed him to accompany their forest strolls in “Man Meets Dog”. Cats are closer to wild animals than dogs, of course, and therefore seem to elicit in their chosen humans a surprised thankfulness: “Me, really?! You’ll allow me to feed you, gaze upon you and only occasionally scratch me? Why, I can’t thank you enough!”

Dogs can be wild too, though, as the protagonists of “Un Chien de Charactère” discover. Sandor Marai tells of a young, childless couple living in Budapest in the years after World War I. The husband decides to surprise the wife with a puppy for Christmas. The puppy, supposedly a Puli (a woolly Hungarian sheep guarding breed), is actually a much larger, mix breed of extremely bad character. Spoiled rotten, he soon starts biting everyone in the household. In those darker times, before the Dog Whisperer’s wisdom was available, the couple ends up deciding to send the dog away.

There is actually a common theme in both “Ti-Puss” and “Un Chien…”: both Maillart and Marai’s protagonist experience life with a more docile, pliable pet (Maillart with a daughter of Ti-Puss she gives away and the hero of “Un Chien…” with a polite lap-dog the couple gets after Tchoutoura). Yet both pine for the wild, independent cat or dog which brought so much trouble. This would please Lorenz immensely, he who always preferred his dogs “wolf-like” instead of docile.

Harsh as the destinies of Ti-Puss the cat and Tchoutoura the dog might seem, these stories feel real and are illustrative of sharing life with animals: there is often deep frustration, sadness and anger involved in keeping pets and that fact usually tends to get overlooked in feel-good books that portray animals as fragile beings who beg for our protection and spend the rest of their lives repaying our good intentions with unconditional love and good behavior.

In a culture that discards pets so easily for being animals (chewing, scratching, biting, barking, marking, etc) yet hails them as polite, cute, fashion accessories, these books are highly refreshing.

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