Winner of the 2020 Moscow Art Prize (Russia)
Winner of the 2019 Big Book Award (Russia)
Rights sold: Bulgaria - GNEZDOTO, China (simplified Chinese) - GINKGO, Estonia - TANAPAEV, France - SYRTES, Hungary - TERICUM, Italy - FRANCESCO BRIOSCHI EDITORE, Latvia - JANIS ROZES, Lithuania - ALMA LITTERA, Romania - HUMANITAS, Russia - AST, Serbia - LOGOS
Grigory Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days, narrated by a male cat named Savely who was likely named for a brand of a cottage cheese, is so affecting and charming that it makes even experienced reader smile, laugh, and even sob. Savely’s story isn’t just a chronicle of a cat’s life, it’s also a love letter to Moscow, and a bittersweet story of kinship, friendship, and separations.
As the novel’s title indicates, Savely, a very literate and literary cat, tells his life story, beginning with memories from the womb, birth, and early life in a Chiquita banana box. Savely’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. Savely 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.
Savely cycles through quite a few lives in the book, 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. Then he's hosted by a young Kirgiz man who rescues Savely after he’s attacked and left badly injured. After Askar is fired from his job at Gorky Park he finds work as a bicycle deliveryman and brings Savely with him. They even deliver food to a theater backstage in a scene that seems to include Sluzhitel in a cameo appearance.
Savely 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, and starts a happy cat-family life in a doghouse with his love and a dog
In his introduction to Savely’s Days, Eugene Vodolazkin says that Sluzhitel draws on his acting skills and becomes a full-fledged cat in the novel. Indeed, Sluzhitel is so good at writing about a cat’s life that at certain point Savely’s descriptions of his own life are more convincing than his passages about his humans’ backstories. The humans’ stories feel like slivers of a portrait of Moscow in the twenty-first century, but they only really come alive when Savely is 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.
Somehow this doesn’t just feel like a matter of Shklovsky’s defamiliarization, something else Vodolazkin mentions in his introduction. It feels as if Sluzhitel’ isn’t just showing the world from a novel 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. Savely 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.