Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous internet cats. Put aside the grumpy one, the cross-eyed one, the dwarf one with extra toes, the one who slides through empty boxes. Let’s get the hard part out of the way: This is a novel from a cat’s perspective, offered up at a time when cats have gone strangely viral. But unlike so much hipster-cat culture, this work takes itself seriously.
Indeed, Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat (translated by Konstantinos Matsoukas)—smart, earnest, and not without a healthy dollop of whimsy—comes closer to anthrozoology than anything to do with a cheezburger.
Welcome to a world in which humans are given names like Madam Sweetie or The Damsel, and our protagonist—a stark white stray on the last of his lives—is called Zach. Cultured and articulate enough to merit entry into the feline intelligentsia, Zach leads the reader through his consciousness with the cadence and tone of a Liam Neeson or Jude Law, something deep, whisky-stained, and British. Perceptive, literate, and not so subtly arrogant, our narrator understands from the moment he’s born into a feral cat colony that he’s destined for greatness, and in his first breath decries his mother and his siblings as lesser-than.
Zach sees himself as a muse in the making, seeking to position himself as the newest entry into the canon of cat/writer relations: “According to all credible sources, all writers, great and small, talented and mediocre, have been good friends to us. Edgar Allan Poe, Colette, Balzac, Patricia Highsmith, Emmanuel Roides, even the demented Philip K. Dick, they all drew inspiration from us.” His literary aspirations lead Zach to accompany two well-to-do writers in their Athens flat, where he attempts to edge his way into their hearts and writings.
But humans are a challenging breed: We overcomplicate, we go against nature, we don’t open ourselves to others. “Your delusion that you are masters of this universe has become plain ridiculous, already,” Zach tells us. “You have made your life unlivable. You’ve become suspicious. You are scared to touch humans in case they bite your arm off. You are friendless. And thus, you have need of us. Whereas we once approached you for food, you now beg us for some sustenance for your deprived soul.”
Yet Zach has mythologized these complexities in such a way that he wants nothing more than to earn human love. He indicts mankind in one breath, then romanticizes his particular human in the next.
And therein lies the heart of Seven Lives: That to love is to observe, often without understanding. To let those observations not interfere with affection but to strengthen it, to challenge its simplicity, to acknowledge imperfections as a part of the adored. That perhaps those we love most are always a foreign species, in one way or another, subject to study and examination through the curious act of loving.
The cat’s love in Seven Lives is pure and fearless, but never uninformed. We readers could take from this a lesson or two: how the smallest of encounters can mark others in profound ways; how we may judge in abstractions and love in specifics. In its quirky, unapologetic way, Divani’s novel is a lesson in considering the needs, the wants, and the perspectives of those utterly unlike ourselves, and how that consideration makes us yet more capable of empathy, more capable of becoming increasingly attuned to our own experience. And ultimately—if we may say so without insult to our feline friends—more human.