Death as a Narrator in Assaf Schurr’s Thus Spoke Vincent, the Stupid Cat

side by side series of the cover

I recently wrote about Stephen King’s fictitious cat in Pet Sematary, who returns from the dead as a symbol of why we fear death—both the inevitability of it and the mystery and gruesomeness of it. It was an amusing coincidence, just as I was finishing up writing about this book, when I happened to pick up Israeli novelist Assaf Schurr’s ten-year-old novel Thus Spoke Vincent, the Stupid Cat. As the title implies, this book does indeed feature a talking cat. What the title doesn’t tell you is that Vincent the cat, like King’s Church the cat, is also back from the dead, though serving a very different purpose.

In Schurr’s novel, married couple Amikam and Netta’s household is falling apart. While the husband draws away from his wife, giving in to obsessive sexual fantasies about other women and ignoring his wife’s romantic and domestic advances (offered in the form of attempted hand jobs and mediocre home-cooked meals), the wife moves through the home aimlessly, searching for a purpose long lost. Their son, Uriyah, locks himself in his bedroom with dying animals that he attempts and fails to save as he grows more and more religiously observant, isolating from his family for fear of their impurities affecting him. While he calls old acquaintances to apologize for childish indiscretions, he remains speechless as he witnesses his younger sister Matti’s extreme weight loss and hears her forays into the kitchen for middle-of-the-night binge sessions. Matti, in turn, avoids family meals and teeters on the brink of adulthood, unsure whether she would like to grow up and experience love or stay a child, small and secure forever. In a sense, all the family members seem to be seeking a form of purity: from sin, from the filth of the corporeal, from the mundane repetition of adulthood, and from the mediocrity of a life shared with others over decades.

Every member of the family makes their meek attempts at connection—Netta by cooking Uriyah kosher food that he refuses to eat and by offering Matti beauty tips that include putting on some pounds. Uriyah by asking for Matti’s help in caring for his menagerie. Matti by blowing off school to spend more time with her mother. Perhaps most extreme and misguided, Amikam attempts to draw his son out of hiding by pouring water under the floor tiles in the bathroom above his son’s bedroom, creating a leak that mirrors the home’s metaphorical collapse with physical deterioration.

None of these gestures are successful. Try as each family member might to create some kind of reconnection, nobody talks, nobody eats, nobody fixes a damp wall together, and nobody admits just how lonely they are. But when one of Uriyah’s dead kittens comes back to life, this unhappy balance begins to tip. Seen and heard by Uriyah alone, the cat’s mad prophetic rants and cynical jabs at the family’s behaviors cause Uriyah to lose his cool, lash out at the others, and unleash a chain of events that lead his mother to take control of the family again by kicking him out of the house, lead Uriyah to acknowledge the pain he is inflicting on his loved ones and the futility of his search for purity, lead Matti to begin eating again and open the door to romantic love, and lead Amikam to finally speak openly with his wife. By the end of the book, the family eats together in a symbol of peace and harmony that is not quite restored but appears to be a possibility.

While Stephen King’s dead cat was like the bell summoning the boat across the River Styx—a tantalizing call of the morbid and macabre—Vincent the dead cat is a wake-up call, much like a god or a guiding hand pushing the plot along. He speaks inconvenient truths and appears to be omniscient, at least when it comes to the secret lives of Uriyah’s family members.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this book also features an unidentified omniscient narrator who occasionally interjects with small comments about the characters, pulling readers out of the fictitious world the book creates and reminding them that these are players who ought to get their act together. Though I’d like to think that perhaps this narrator is also Vincent, Vincent’s speaking style is much less dignified. He is whimsical and snarky, which is precisely what makes his character a joy to read. Half mad prophet (“I am the muffled cry of the ripped root”) and half potty-mouthed miscreant (“Bet you’d like me to rub up against a different body part”), Vincent’s purpose seems to be to make things happen by getting Uriyah (and, by proxy, the other characters) all riled up. In this riling up, each family member in turn can see clearly that the blemishes they all find in their lives are not outlying flaws but inherent parts of the structure, to be embraced rather than fought off.

Much like Vincent’s character, real life is also made up of both the sublime and the squalid, which are two sides of the same coin. They are not to be chosen between, but rather taken together. And that’s why it’s okay for Netta to raise her voice at the others, for Amikam to have fantasies but never act on them, for Uriyah to eat in his mother’s non-kosher kitchen, and for Matti to ingest food and start getting her period again. Life is never flawless, but always cracked. When Amikam, Netta, Uriya, and Matti learn to accept the crack in everything, Vincent disappears back into his early grave, his interjections and rude guidance no longer needed.