Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fun with Cats: Starobinets's Catlantis

Sometimes I’m glad I hoard certain books for reading when I know I’ll need something fun and light. Case in point: Anna Starobinets’s Котлантида (Catlantis), which had been napping away on my shelf for several years, occasionally scratching for attention, until a few weeks ago. Catlantis, a children’s chapter book about a cat on a mission, was just the thing for a week that was too full of real-life existential questions (not to mention work on three books in various phases!) to read the sort of heavy-but-wonderful books I generally love so much. Beyond that, I’m glad to have read Catlantis before Jane Bugaeva’s translation comes out from Pushkin Children’s in October (PDF catalogue here, see page 14), just in time for holiday gift-giving.

Catlantis tells the tale of Baguette, a ginger cat who lives on the twelfth floor and loves to sit in the window birdwatching. Baguette doesn’t just watch birds, though: he’s also noticed Purriana, a slender, striped cat with a pink nose. Using Baguette’s family’s dog as a messenger, he and Purriana send each other notes—including Baguette’s poetry, which alludes to everything from Pushkin to favorite foods sources. Baguette, of course, has a competitor for Purriana’s velvety paw: the dreadful dump cat Noir.

Purriana agrees to marry Baguette if he can complete a quest assigned by her great-great grandmother: Baguette, who has powers for time travel, is to go to Catlantis and bring back a certain flower so cats can once again live nine lives. The book’s not very long so I’ll stop with the details here, though I will say that Baguette’s family misses him terribly while he’s away (they’d been planning to put bars on the window before he disappears) and Baguette, who’s of French descent, makes a stop in medieval Europe on his way back from Catlantis. Starobinets includes lots of wonderful word play—I’m sure Jane had tons of fun with that—and even manages to work in questions of religion and belief, related, of course, to black cats.

For my part, Catlantis’s puns and observations of cat peculiarities made me laugh out loud when I really need to. On the more serious side, I appreciated the nine lives element since my real-life existential questions involved my grandmother’s last days: she lived 103 very full years, which must be the human equivalent of at least nine feline lives.

Up Next: Eugene Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Lena Eltang’s Cartagena, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I now seem to be reading slowly because I don’t want to finish it! Also, translators and publishers, please do send me titles and dates for this year’s releases: I’m hoping to post the 2015 translation list soon!

Disclaimers: The usual. I received my copy of Котлантида from Read Russia, thank you!

This post was approved by The Gang of Fur, Edwina and Ireland.



  1. This sounds like a really sweet book. I was wondering, do you think that it would be suitable for someone learning Russian? I'm at a sort of advanced beginner level I suppose, and I'm looking for ways to practice now my class has broken up until September.

    1. Thank you for your question, Laura. It is a fun book! I don't usually suggest children's books for beginning learners because they often contain a word play and/or very specific vocabulary. A lot, of course, always depends on individual preparation, interest, and how much you want to understand. When I was first learning Russian, I got a kick out of just paging through books and recognizing words and case endings (!): that turned out to be a valuable exercise for me. I know other people who want to understand every word the first time through: they find it useful and fun, though I would have found it torture as a beginner.

      That's not very helpful, is it? I guess I might suggest thinking about your goals for your practice during your break from classes. I'd also highly recommend speaking with your teacher about possible materials: your teacher might have specific ideas on texts (or video or audio) that would reinforce what you've already learned.

      Here, by the way, is a video of Starobinets reading an excerpt from the book. (link)