Sunday, August 5, 2018

Cats Are Not People, Too: Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days [Edit: Big Book One]

Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (literally Savely’s Days) came as a bit of a surprise, despite hearing a rave recommendation from Evgeny Vodolazkin months before the book came out. I’m pretty picky about animal books – though I read Charlotte’s Web a million times as a child and loved Anna Starobinets’s Catlantis a few years ago – but Sluzhitel’s novel, narrated by a male cat named Savely (diminutive Savva), who was likely named for a brand of tvorog, is so affecting and charming (a word I rarely use) that it made me smile, laugh, and even sob. Savva’s story isn’t just a chronicle of a cat’s life, it’s also a love letter to Moscow (something I’d felt in my reading and was happy to see Sluzhitel’ confirm in this interview) and a bittersweet story of kinship, friendship, and separations. Sluzhitel’s writing is complemented by atmospheric black-and-white illustrations from Aleksandra Nikolaenko, winner of last year’s Russian Booker Prize.

And so. As the novel’s title indicates, Savva, a very literate and literary cat, tells his life story, beginning with memories from the womb, birth in a Zaporozhets, and early life in a Chiquita banana box. Savva’s childhood is pretty happy, featuring food from benefactors, regular visits to see his aunt (who lives in a front-loading washing machine), and good relationships with his sisters and mother. His upbringing is solid: his mother tells him that cats don’t really have nine lives so there’s no sense in taking chances by walking in front of motorized transportation. Savva loses touch with his family after a well-meaning human takes him in. He’s not particularly happy in his new life despite nice possessions like a laser mouse, scratchers, and rubber balls, not to mention a Sunday ritual of climbing into a tea pot. He ends up bolting on the way to a vet visit (he’s already been neutered), leaving Vitya, a bookish teenager who’s something of an outcast, catless.

I didn’t count the major changes in Savva’s tale but he cycles through quite a few lives in the book (I’ll go lightly to avoid spoilers), serving as a rat catcher at the Tretyakov Gallery and having to co-habit, albeit briefly, with a parrot named Iggy, a situation not fated to end well. My favorite of Savva’s hosts is a young Kirgiz man who rescues Savva after he’s attacked and left badly injured. After Askar is fired from his job at Gorky Park (there’s been smoking…) he finds work as a bicycle deliveryman and brings Savva with him. (They even deliver food to a theater in a scene that seems to include Sluzhitel’ in a cameo appearance.) Beyond additional lovely descriptions of Moscow during that period – the city filled with morning sun, puddles drying after a night downpour, everything looking harmonious and beautiful, a look I love so much – Askar, a migrant living under tenuous conditions with friends who’ve pooled their money for Savva’s care and feeding, was my favorite of the human characters in the novel. That’s partly because of his big heart but I also wonder if I found Askar (and the last pair of people who care for Savva) the most convincing or fitting of the humans in the book because he lives on the margins of contemporary Moscow life, giving him something in common with Savva, who’s a wanderer. Savva wants to see the world (or at least Moscow) and even gives the impression of being something of an existentialist with a phobia for commitment, too. At least, that is, until he meets a beautiful young cat, in some of the book’s nicest passages.

I could go on and on about favorite passages – why Savva’s fired from the Tretyakov, psychedelic experiments with valerian tooth drops, or his life in a doghouse with his love and a dog – but will sum up by agreeing with Vodolazkin’s assessment, in his introduction to Savely’s Days, that Sluzhitel’ draws on his acting skills and becomes a full-fledged cat in the novel. Of course that’s all too easy for me to say because a) I’ve never been a cat and b) my own two cats don’t seem to write. (They do read and translate with me, though, so perhaps they’re holding out on us?) Sluzhitel’ is so good at writing about a cat’s life that, though I enjoyed the entire book, I found Savva’s descriptions of his own life more convincing than his passages about his humans’ backstories. The humans’ stories felt like slivers of a portrait of Moscow in the twenty-first century, but they only really came alive for me when Savva was interacting with his people in some way, by climbing into the teapot, observing Vitya’s grandmother, or making sushi deliveries. Or sitting inside someone’s coat on a park bench during a time of mourning.

Edwina translating Vodolazkin’s Aviator.
Somehow (don’t ask me how since I’m not sure I understand it myself) this doesn’t just feel like a matter of Shklovsky’s остранение (ostranenie, defamiliarization), something else Vodolazkin mentions in his introduction. It feels to me as if Sluzhitel’ isn’t just showing the world from a novel (sorry) perspective. He’s an actor who’s an author (and an author who’s an actor) and channels his inner catness to thoroughly inhabit a character who’s not even of his own species. In doing so, he manages to find an internal logic for his text that makes the feline perspective feel perfectly natural, as if it’s not just a literary device. Savva may be a cat but he can tell a story – an exceedingly rare quality these days – at least as well as he can chase his tail. Maybe I’m too willing to suspend my disbelief and/or maybe I’m too close to cats to be objective, but what makes Savva such a successful figure for me is that, yes, fine, he’s able to read, to understand human dialogue, and to write, but he’s a cat. And he wants to be a cat, to chase his tail, to try valerian, and not to answer to humans. Or to become a human. Just like my two officemates, who often lie on my desk and make themselves available for patting when I’m working on difficult passages (it helps!) but leave the room as soon as I start reading out loud, though perhaps that’s because they can’t relate to my books since I have yet to translate a book narrated by a cat.

Disclaimers: A friend provided me with an electronic copy of Savely’s Days; I’m going to buy a print copy in Moscow next month. I’ve also corresponded a bit with Grigory Sluzhitel’.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. I’m also working on my Big Book reading, with Alexander Arkhangelsky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau), which has finally taken a dramatic turn.


  1. Hi, I just want to double check: is there an English translation of this book, or you read it in Russian?

    1. I read it in Russian, Anonymous, thank you for checking, just in case!

    2. Thank you for confirming, I've read it as well but for my friends I'd need it in English :)