Cat Country

“When I look at contemporary China,” Yan Lianke has said, “I see a nation that is thriving yet distorted. I see corruption, disorder and chaos…” His predecessor Lao She, who was born in 1899 and published throughout the twenties, thirties and forties – eventually committing suicide after a beating by the Red Guards in 1966 – presents an even more pessimistic view in his science fiction novel Cat Country, originally published in 1932, and recently reprinted by Penguin Classics in a 1970 translation by William Lyell. In Cat Country the narrator finds himself the only survivor of a spaceship which has crash landed on Mars in a country of Cat People. He decides to discover as much as he can about Cat culture, but soon declares that he sees little hope for their future:

“As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilisation will soon perish.”

Initially taken prisoner, he quickly discovers that, as a foreigner, he is a valuable commodity, feared by the Cat People and therefore able to guard the crops of reverie leaves which provide the country with its staple diet as well as drugging its people into docile compliance. He describes his own first taste of the leaves, which are clearly intended to suggest the opium which plagued China at the time Lao was writing:

“After having eaten two of the leaves in a row, my head began to feel a bit dizzy, and yet it wasn’t at all an unpleasant sensation… It were almost like I were benumbed and excited at the same time.”

The reverie leaves are not only the entire economy of Cat Country, but also at the heart of its lax legal system: realising that preventing their theft was an impossible task the government opted simply to legalise it:

“The government decided that too many robberies were being perpetrated, and issued a most humane order: from now on stealing reverie leaves would not be considered a criminal act.”

Despite this, those who grow reverie leaves are the most powerful in the land, and the narrator is asked by one of these wealthy figures, Scorpion, to protect his crop. In befriending our narrator Scorpion adopts a typical Cat philosophy: “it seemed that the main reason Scorpion made friends was in order to use people for his own benefit.” More generally we are told:

“The Cat People were not accustomed to helping in anything that might be of benefit to someone else.”

Although the reverie leaves may remind us of the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published the same year), Lao’s science fiction is more reminiscent of H. G. Wells, beginning with the choice of travel to another planet to initiate his satire. In fact, he covers a lot of Wells’ career in this novel, with an adventurous opening and an increasingly didactic second half. In his critique of China he is at pains to show that it is not simply a political question, but a deterioration of the national character in a way which might remind us of the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine. Though exploitation by foreign powers is part of the problem:

“That only happens when the people lose their individual integrity and the country gradually loses its national integrity, for on-one wants to cooperate with a country that has lost its integrity.”

Once the narrator reaches Cat City the satire becomes even more savage. One example is his description of Cat education. Having abandoned their own traditions to ape foreign ones which they do not understand, students now graduate on the first day and teachers are unpaid:

“Of course, quite a few of our teachers starve to death, but the number of university graduates goes on increasing anyway.”

Academics are no better: “they just string a lot of foreign nouns together so that nobody understands them.” As for Cat Country’s proud history, he is taken on a tour of a museum where all the rooms are empty as all the historical artefacts have been sold.

Though written before China became a Communist country, Lao also has Communism in his sights, or Everbodysharekyism as it is called in the novel. He foresees not only its violence, but that its ideas will never be put into practice:

“…when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other.”

Cat Country is not entirely successful as a novel: when the narrator befriends Young Scorpion in the second half, large sections are taken up with explanation rather than experience. The narrator’s position as the reader’s viewpoint also prevents any character development. Lao does see the novel through to cultural cataclysm, however, and ends it with an apt image of Cat Country’s self-destruction. Cat Country is a fascinating example of science fiction as a tool of satire, and as vicious a critique of national character as you’ll find this side of Thomas Bernhard. Though probably influenced by Lao’s father’s death in the Boxer Rebellion, the novel also uncannily foreshadows the circumstances of his own death thirty years later; as with all great satire it is as much about the future as the past.

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