Friday, June 11, 2010

Review: The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity by Jutta Richter

Jutta Richter
Translator: Anna Brailovsky
Title: The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity, original title of Die Katze
Illustrator: Rotraut Susanne Berner
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, originally published in Munich by Carl Hanser Verlag
Publication Date: 2007, original publication date 2006
ISBN: 978-1-57131-676-9

Eight-year-old Christine knows that cats can talk. Every day on her way to school she stops to chat with a local alley cat while stroking its soft, white fur. Cats are wise and seem to know a great deal more that she does. She makes her think. Then her teacher asks her why she is late to school. When she tells the truth, she must write 200 lines, “There are no talking cats, and from now on I will arrive at school on time.” Christine couldn’t lie, so she took out the word no. But the cat’s philosophy of life begins to seem wrong to Christine. Should a person really think only of themselves? When the cat shows a lack of sympathy for Father Wittkamp after a trying day at school, Christine awakens to the differences between the cat’s beliefs and her own. Eternity is over now. (Richter, Jutta. 2007. The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity. Ill. by Rotraut Susanne Berner. Canada: Milkweed Editions. ISBN 9781571316769)

The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity
by Jutta Richter is a short novel of only 63 pages with two main characters, the cat and Christine. However, the characters are well developed. Personalities are exposed through the conversations between the two and Christine’s choices in her daily life. The cat appears selfish. Everything relates to mice, her food source, and the pleasure she obtains from Christine’s attention and teasing the neighborhood dog. Christine, on the other hand, is confused, looking for help and guidance in her life. She begins to think about the cat’s philosophy and makes her own decisions, thus growing and maturing even within such a short story. There is not much action, but the encounters with school mates, teachers, and neighbors provide more questions to discuss. The descriptive language and poetic analogies scattered throughout the story add to the imagery and emotions. “The penalty assignment in my backpack weighed on me like a brick. It pushed me down into the asphalt, as if I were sinking into a snowdrift” (p. 33). Obviously, Christine was not looking forward to completing her school punishment for ‘lying’ about a talking cat.

Despite the use of descriptive language, the cultural markers were subtle and hard to find. The slant-eyed cat is portrayed in two-color illustrations by Berner with the final drawing of the cat in a tree containing a single apple, referring to the snake in the Garden of Eden. The illustrations were generic. The reader cannot tell from the illustrations where the story took place other than from the view of the tiled rooftops of houses close together and a chain-link fence, implying that the story took place in a city or a village. No humans were included in the illustrations.

Within the text itself, the Catholic references such as fish on Fridays and a catechism class taught by Father Wittkamp let the reader know that this story does not take place in a Protestant, New England town or a Buddhist or Muslim world. The fact that Christine was able to walk to a nearby farm to observe the cows reduces the size of the city to a rural town. Physical appearances of people were sparse: the flat-footed mailman, the short principal, her short classmate Pug with his hands like claws, and Father Wittkamp’s blue eyes. Language patterns and dialect were not used. Many of the names were nicknames, like Pug (Ferdinand) and his brothers Fatso and Shorty, but the neighbor Waldemar Buck with his dog Alf, Christine’s teacher Mr. Hanke, Farmer Nelson, Father Wittkamp, classmates Irene Bockmann and Franklin Wanamaker all have European names, with Hanke, Wittkamp, Bockmann, and Wanamaker being German names. These names are what finally pin the setting down to a German town, or one in America where German names and the Catholic religion are common. The German culture was not the focus of the story; the Catholic and Christian belief in original sin, good and evil, Satan in the Garden of Eden as personified by the cat is the true focus.

I found this book interesting, in a deeply meaningful but strange way. Will this book be well accepted among young American readers? I doubt it, even though it is well-written. This book was in the juvenile section of my public library. The cover is simple, gray and red with a small line drawing of a white cat, green crescent moon, and a yellow sun. It is not very eye-catching so shelf browsers would be unlikely to pick it out. The concept of talking to a cat is appealing, but the philosophical discussions that take place would hardly keep the attention of an American eight-year-old with their entertain me attitude and short attention span developed through watching TV and playing video and computer games. It is more likely to appeal to teens, as they begin to question themselves and their beliefs. Maybe it needs to be shelved with the YA (Young Adult) books, although the age of the main character might stop teens from checking it out. It definitely has a place in a philosophy class, a church, or a private school with a Christian philosophy.

Review excerpts:
Horn Book (Spring 2008) ...”sophisticated air of a story best suited to budding philosophers.”

Publishers Weekly (November 5, 2007) “It’s not too much to read the book as an allegory of good and evil in the postmodern world.” Ages 8-up

School Library Journal (February 1, 2008) “It is hard to imagine a broad audience for this book.” Gr 5-8

Philadelphia Inquirer “This is one for the bookshelf, a book to be read and saved and rediscovered in adulthood, when it will be remembered as an early lesson in looking for the universe inside every small thing.” (from )

The Catholic Children’s and Youth Book Prize (Germany) “Jutta Richter possesses the enviable gift to capture difficult things, morals, and feelings in pictures that will touch the reader and resonate with him for a long time.” (from )

2008 Mildred L. Batchelder Honor book

Within a philosophy class or a Christian school, this book could be paired with a reading from the Bible of the story of Adam and Eve. Another children’s picture book relating to this topic is Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden by Jane Ray. If these are read to younger students before or after Richter’s book, then the deeper meaning of The Cat... will become clearer and may lead to a discussion of how the original story can be applied to students’ lives. Has anything or anyone ever tempted you to do something you know is wrong?


1 comment:

  1. Hello RSimpson. I'm an undergrad student and work in my university library's Education Materials Center (EMC). One of the projects I am working on currently is updating our multicultural children's literature bibliography. In finding new books to add to it, I stumbled upon this blog and just had to say this is a wonderful work you created here! I have looked at a few of your reviews and I find them very insightful! Hopefully you will see this and continue the great work you've made here. Also, I will pass this on to my supervisor (the librarian in charge of the EMC) as he will be very interested to read these wonderful reviews!

    Thank you for the great work here!