"You curl up in your new hideout, and the soft light of April afternoon washes your worn-out body. You are aware of my closeness. you confirm hat with a gentle sigh while my palm tenderly slide down your fur. You still like my touch, although pain is what you mostly feel"
From 'A World Without Colour'
By Bernard Jan
I had a unique experience with this book. When I bought it, my beloved 14-year-old cat Frodo was alive. When I finished it, his ashes were sitting next to his brother’s on our family china cabinet. Since I was twelve years old, cats have been a giant part of my life. We adopted two rescued kittens and despite losing our sofa, skin and a decent sleep to their furry temperaments, we loved them unreservedly.
I grew up in a very small family, which has whittled down even more over the last five years, and I always had trouble making friends, so I grew to rely a lot on Frodo and Sherman. Their constant companionship meant I was never alone, even in the worst of times. One stroke, one lick, one purr, all these small natural acts of a cat meant more to me than so many compliments or reassuring smiles. Even if a purr meant “Yes human, you are my heater and I WILL sit on your lap as you panic about your dissertation” or “I WILL sit the crook of your arm every night and badger you endlessly until you pull back the duvet so I can snuggle down”, it was a semi-silent understanding of accepting and listening. I accept you, you accept me, I will listen to you and you will...sometimes...listen to me. When we lost Frodo in October, I grieved for him more than any grandparent I’ve lost, which sounds terrible I know. With each grandparent, we knew that death was coming for them. With both our cats, it was sudden and they were gone without twenty-four hours. Sherman we lost to a tumour, Frodo we lost to cat aids or cancer (it wasn’t determined which, his blood suggested one or the other). One memory that will always stick with me about losing Frodo – and by extension Sherman as when we lost him we still had Frodo to comfort us – was a drive home I made two days after his death. It was a terrible day, filled with anxiety and disappointments. I realized half way back that there would be no cat to comfort, accept and calm me when I got home. I screamed. I screamed and punched the steering wheel, tears pouring down my face so I could barely see. I was near home, so I didn’t pull over. I felt if I pulled over I wouldn’t be able to drive again. I just kept screaming.
So, as you can imagine, it took me a while to find the strength to read A World Without Colour by Bernard Jan. His novella focuses on the last three days he spent with his beloved and fading cat Marcel. I say ‘novella’ as there are fictional elements, but Jan doesn’t deny that the bones of his story are based on truth, labelling it a ‘true story’ in his opening pages. He is one of the many to have lost a loved furry friend, a member of the family, a part of himself.
The novella is told in first-person present tense by the narrator, whom we can presume is the writer in this instance. The language is raw and beautifully honest, it explores in detail the turmoil felt by a person when they know the horrific inevitable is going to happen. I found it a little ‘flowery’ at times for my personal taste, but this did not affect my reading of the story. A believer and campaigner in animal rights, the narrator struggles to stop fighting. He will not give up on Marcel, he denies sleep and rest so that he can attend to Marcel’s bathroom needs, as the poor cat can no longer empty his bladder on his own. He questions himself, notes his own addiction to Marcel, but refuses to back away and let death take his friend. Even after Marcel’s death, the narrator carries around the needles that ended Marcel’s life, which I found a beautiful and moving demonstration of love.
The characters are complex and realistic in their actions, from the narrator’s parents to the vet Saša, who despite his profession has become a family friend and part of Marcel’s life, and inevitably his death. Each character reacts to death differently. Mom, who has already lost two cats in her life, quickly begins removing signs of Marcel and focuses on what the next step is. Dad gets drunk and stumbles into bed, sobbing in privacy as he cannot share his pain with others. The narrator himself has two endings, one genuine and one fictional. In the genuine ending, the narrator finds peace and opens up to his friends, keeping his vow to Marcel that he will honour his cat’s memory. In the fictional ending, the narrator jumps off his balcony, refusing to allow himself an end like Marcel, where he is put down by others when he is no longer able to fight. He makes his own choice. He joins Marcel in an afterlife setting, together again with his soulmate.
It was not only the characters but the environment that made this book very real. The locations are primarily the narrator’s home and his workplace, which adds a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment to the work. These places of comfort are being disturbed by the presence of death and the narrator cannot escape either one of them. We see how death changes the everyday environment, which I found extremely engaging and a skilful act on the writer’s part. It is only in the last handful of pages that we are introduced to a new environment: the street. The narrator watches Saša walk down the street, carrying Marcel’s body in a bag. The street repeats in the narrator’s mind, acting as a symbol of loss but also progression: the street leads on, it continues, there is a future beyond the street. In the genuine ending, the narrator walks down the newly-washed street and begins his new life. In the fictional one, the narrator jumps out and onto the street, using it as his grave. These contrasting uses of environment were simple yet powerful, I applaud the writer for his ability to weave grand themes – such as death – into his use of landscapes.
This short powerful novella is a must read. It gave me permission to stop grieving in many ways, because Bernard Jan told me it was okay to feel like I did and it was okay to move on, despite suffering an emptiness that will never be filled. I would give this book to anyone who has pets, because it will give you an insight into what will happen one day. We’re telling you it is okay and that you aren’t alone.