Thursday, 22 January 2015

Doris Lessing, "The Old Age of El Magnifico"


 – Flamingo 2000



Read on January 22nd 2015

My rating :


Cat among Humans

My attitude toward cats has always been ambiguous. I mean, although I have never disliked them, nor have I loved them as I love dogs. Moreover, I always believed (subconsciously if I may use this lame excuse) in the cliché that a dog lover couldn’t be a cat lover.

However, lately, and probably because two of my close friends have got cats and often speak of them in a warm and delighted and intimate way, I began to look at them with a different eye, and I have to admit that there is something truly intriguing about them – an elegance, an aloofness and a dignity that seems to justify the fascination of so many artists with them.


Doris Lessing’s short story, The Old Age of El Magnifico, is one of those memorable works of art featuring a cat. It is not addressed necessarily to cat lovers and it is definitely too complex to be addressed to children. Furthermore, it is not a fable and it is definitely not an allegory. It is only an amazing story on the old theme of the bond between man and beast.

With a beautiful simplicity (that is, devoid of cheap sentimentalism) and without falling into the trap of the personification (that is, without humanizing the beast), the author reveals the complex relationship between humans and their pets, relationship which mixes love, understanding, rough decisions and continuous care, but which is infinitely rewarding:

What a luxury a cat is, the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day, the feel of the beast, the soft sleekness under your palm when you wake on a cold night, the grace and charm even in a quite ordinary workaday puss. Cat walks across your room, and in that lonely stalk you see leopard or even panther, or it turns its head to acknowledge you and the yellow blaze of those eyes tells you what an exotic visitor you have here, in this household friend, the cat who purrs as you stroke, or rub his chin, or scratch his head.

It is the story of Butchkin, a seventeen-year-old cat, surnamed (among other honorifics) El Magnifico, who chose his mistress the moment he could see after he was born, and who lived peacefully and uneventfully with her for fourteen years, when he had to have a leg amputated because of a bone cancer. His surgery, his suffering, his lack of understanding and his slow rehabilitation, all this is told in a quiet, low voice, by a narrator who doesn’t for a moment use emotional blackmail against the reader, but whose love the reader however never doubts, and this is the most impressive gift Doris Lessing gives him, that perfect feeling of belonging, not only of the pet to the human being, but also of the human being to the pet:

When I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency. When I do this – and he must be in the right mood too, not in pain or restless – then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat, finding the best of him. Human and cat, we try to transcend what separates us.

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