The Feline Plague, Maja Novak (trans. Maja Visenjak-Limon). North Atlantic Books. 248pp, $15.95.
No prescription for a healthy life can be followed, he mused. At best, you choose your method of collapse—and while we go to hell as individuals, our young state, with its market-driven democracy and small businesses we’re so proud of, is turning into something with only virtual life. An animated abstraction—which we Slovenians have always found easier to understand and have been fonder of than real live people, from the very beginning.
Thus surmises Filip, an aspiring writer turned PR man, one of several characters who, despite his ability to self-analyze, is doomed to become a cultural traitor in Slovenian author Maja Novak’s novel The Feline Plague.
Set in the 1990s and first published in 2000, Novak’s first book translated into English is an apocalyptic fable with mythical elements and an “Earth first”–message. It’s meant to be an eccentric satire of Slovenia’s greed after communism ended, and as social commentary it produces a handful of interesting arguments and observations. Yet in this short novel, which feels overstuffed with peculiarities, Novak introduces more elements than she resolves, and tries repeatedly to force the moral of this peculiar morality tale.
Executed as such, the book lands halfway between American writer Douglas Coupland’s snarky Generation X—which tweaked his generation’s yuppies and offered a lexicon for them to better navigate their brand-name lives—and the grim analysis of Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, wherein Milosz chronicled his fellow artists’ conversion from dissidents to apparatchiks under communism in Warsaw in the 1950s. As indicated by Filip’s telling comments above, Novak clearly would have preferred if, when Slovenians were free of the old regime in the ’90s, they had defined themselves by starting a cultural revolution rather than rushing toward capitalism, hungry to leave the Cold War behind and begin their own Generation X.
The story is set in the capital Ljubljana. It follows several Slovenian businesswomen, who may or may not be goddesses with mythical powers over animals and the earth, who establish The Empire, a nation-wide chain of high-end pet stores that sells miniature pets as personal accessories.
Without communism to guide them, Novak’s band of managers and workers fall into a trance that leads to dreary days on the clock for The Empire. Novak occasionally gives the action a realistic touch—American warplanes passing overhead to bomb targets near Belgrade—but she focuses mainly on office life at Empire, which resembles scenes from Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Workers at Empire, whose flagship pet store is called The Ark, argue over who stole the other’s dreams, recreate paintings by Hieronymous Bosch, play Napoleon’s version of solitaire, and discuss the ancient religious notions of the Cathar doctrine.
Besides artist-turned-PR man Filip, the cast includes The Lady, who is the big boss (“Business first and culture second is what I’ve always said”) and runs the cartoonish company with her hand-picked team of morose, super-powered employees. At her right hand is Ira, Goddess of Animals and Anger, a sort of female Dr. Doolittle and emo dream warrior. Erzulie is a blind, lusty genius/painter whose moods occasionally mess with the weather in Eastern Europe. Lastly there are the neurotic twins Greta and Marga, who represent everyday Slovenian women forced to conform by fear of unemployment and boredom.
Novak intentionally plots her book loosely to allow for her characters’ eccentricities and sudden narrative digressions. It’s an often aggravating habit, especially when it becomes clear that these digressions are meant to be didactic, to show the author wagging her finger at her assumed Slovenian audience, as in this speech when Ira reminds Filip of the altruistic dreams he had as a boy:
I saw boys given a machine gun at eight and told they were now going to be guerilla fighters. As they grinned with happiness because they thought they’d become men, you could see they didn’t have teeth in their sore pink gums, from scurvy. Their sisters, balancing pitchers of sago beer on their heads, waddled awkwardly under the weight of the children growing inside them. The village shamans had told them it was wrong to put lemon peel between their legs, which would have helped. Flies swarmed in the corners of the eyes of breastfeeding women who were weakened by thirst. I saw teeth reddened from betel nut leaves. I saw red deserts and huts in rain forests woven from brushwood. A river, gray as the sea and as lazy as a mule, was where people washed themselves.
As the protagonist, Ira shoulders the burden of proving that a person will suffer great sadness if she forsakes her special power with animals. Crookedly, Ira grows from a quiet child who loves her pets and rarely speaks into the outspoken manipulative vice-chairwoman of The Empire. By using her powers to serve Mammon and not the earth, Ira (with Filip’s help) accidentally causes the plague in the book’s title. And as in all good tales about Mother Nature biting back when she’s been exploited, Novak makes sure that the Slovenian population pays dearly for buying so much pet stuff from The Empire.
Novak shows that, in her opinion, Slovenians knew exactly what their countrymen were doing throughout the ’90s and had the freedom to speak out. But her mockery of Slovenia comes across as clumsy and mean-spirited at times, as when she uses characters to voice her political commentary, with shrill italics in some instances:
Let me tell you something first that’s important: It’s not right what goes on in capitalism. . . . Before with communism at least they just left us ordinary folk in peace. You were able to live, just live your life, with no ambitions; if you managed to do something, build a little house, a weekend house, all the better. But now everyone wants to stick their nose into your life, everyone’s lives, into who you were in the buried past. Not only the dissidents, everyone is sorting through everything now, meddling in other people’s lives. How do you meddle in someone’s life more than by throwing them on the street? And demanding that everyone have lofty ambitions—don’t tell me that’s right. The end of the world is near!
When Filip hears this speech he mumbles, “Clichés, clichés.” Yet Novak clearly believes that many of these sentiments, while cliché, are valid criticisms, based on what Filip said earlier about Slovenians’ fondness for “virtual life.”
As the country’s collective despair grows in the novel, and as The Empire’s headquarters becomes a living, moody building (since people refuse to admit their own sadness anymore), Ira proposes that to reignite its marketing spirit The Empire should broadcast a huge charity telethon (author’s italics again included below):
“Hello, Slovenia,” they will say in a hundred and five foreign languages, like the Pope, but in a livelier fashion, “Hello, Slovenia!!!” with three exclamation marks. And they will wave to Slovenia, smiling. Lucky Slovenia, to be able to indulge in charity while others are at war. It would be a good idea to translate this statement into Latin and use it as a slogan. The musicians, all well-known names, will wave to Slovenia, the audience will wave to Slovenia. That’s the essence of glamour: sharing in others’ fame or wealth.
Thus, having sold her soul, Ira is given one last chance to wake up from her capitalist slumber when, in one of the book’s strongest scenes, she is visited by the ghost of her Nana. We are told her Nana neglects going through Heaven’s door because Ira keeps leaving her delicious expensive treats like Cointreau and apple pie. Ira talks as Nana eats and listens, each woman representing the generations before and after communism. As Ira tells her Nana, “We’re still haunted by old ghosts, the same old monsters chase us in a circle, we’re unsure, enclosed, trapped. Until we escape from the old fears, no good will come of us. But people don’t know how to change. They can’t, they just aren’t clever enough.”
This sympathetic note carries through to the novel’s conclusion, which reveals the identity of the book’s narrator, a somewhat satisfying surprise in a book without very many. Ultimately, Novak doesn’t condemn her characters entirely; in fact, at least one is quite literally forgiven from on high. After all, Novak seems to say, selling out is a common knee-jerk reaction to the risk of unemployment and poverty. Before communism fell, Slovenians (and many other nations) found common cause in fear of the Cold War specter of nuclear annihilation. With Plague, Novak plays with the possibility of spiritual annihilation, if only to make her people regret that they missed a chance to enrich their nation’s cultural spirit and commit to environmentalism.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, Zach Plague. Featherproof Books. 288pp, $14.95. For good reason, Featherproof Books’ description of its latest release, boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague, emphasizes how the book’s design is meant to contribute to a reader’s appreciation of the story: the...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Matthew Jakubowski
Read more articles about books from North Atlantic Books