Cabo de Gata: A Novel

  • By Eugen Ruge; translated by Anthea Bell
  • Graywolf Press
  • 120 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sutton Strother
  • December 29, 2016

Deceptively slim, this story packs an expansive punch.

Just as this review of Eugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, a novel in which cats figure prominently, is being drafted, it happens to be National Cat Day here in the United States. This is the sort of coincidence that the novel’s narrator, depending on his mood, might either furiously dismiss as a meaningless accident of timing or cling to as a serendipitous message from the universe.

Indeed, these opposing viewpoints represent the kind of difficult philosophical tensions at the heart of Cabo de Gata, originally published in Ruge’s native Germany in 2013 but now available in English for the first time.

An author and translator, Ruge first gained notoriety for his debut novel, In Times of Fading Light, which was awarded the 2011 German Book Prize. That novel unfolds across decades and from multiple characters’ points of view, a sprawling and ambitious story. Cabo de Gata, on the other hand, is as narrowly focused as its predecessor is expansive, though every bit as sharp and insightful.

In terms of plot, Cabo de Gata is a deceptively straightforward tale. Peter Handke, a German writer unhappy with his circumstances, abandons his life in Berlin and winds up in the Andalusian fishing village of the book’s title. While there, he wanders the landscape, fails to connect with the locals, crosses paths with fellow tourists, and develops a bizarre connection with one of the village’s feral cats. After a few months, believing he has comprehended “the message of the cat,” he leaves. Whether he’s truly learned anything from this episode is debatable.

The dearth of action may not be to every reader’s taste; make no mistake, Cabo de Gata is a quiet book. The bulk of the novel concerns Peter’s interior commentary on the story’s few external events rather than on the events themselves. In fact, Peter scarcely speaks to anyone, due in part to the language barrier, but primarily to his reclusive, distrustful nature.

Ruge’s style, though thoughtful and often darkly funny, is concise and unadorned, qualities that are faithfully reproduced by translator Anthea Bell. The spare style also reflects the landscape of Cabo de Gata itself, a sleepy and desolate place, contrary to the vibrant travel-guide description that leads Peter there to begin with.

That said, it’s easy to mistake “quiet” for “simple,” and Cabo de Gata is anything but. In fact, the novel’s quietude and inward focus serve as a foundation upon which Ruge can build a fascinating, if challenging, set of ideas.

Above all else, Ruge is interested in the conflict between creating an objective picture of reality and the ways that observation inevitably colors, alters, and imposes significance on that reality. Peter asserts more than once that his aim is to relate the story’s events, which we’re told took place 15 years prior, as they actually happened.

However, sentences repeatedly start with tags like “I remember” or “I recall,” a reminder that these events, images, and characters are filtered through Peter’s subjective and selective point of view. In describing his surroundings, his focus on physical detail is often painstakingly microscopic, an attempt at hyper-objectivity that can’t help but reveal more about Peter, the observer, than the object of his observation. “Can the world be perceived?” he recalls his former civics teacher inquiring. “Isn’t that really the fundamental question?” Peter — and Ruge, by extension — asks the reader.

These questions about observable reality give Cabo de Gata a metafictional bent, offering reflection on what it means to tell an autobiographical tale. In spite of the story’s framing as a “factual” account, Peter admits to thinking of himself as a fictional character and to examining each event as it unfolds “for its suitability as a subject.”

After arriving at his destination, Peter beings work on a novel but cannot move beyond writing and rewriting its opening lines, so self-conscious is he about its style. He expresses dissatisfaction when two tourists he meets, one English and one American, don’t live up to his expectations of what an English or American character ought to be. And though he begins the story a vehement materialist, many moments find him attributing significance to random events and seeing important messages in the behavior of a feral cat.

If we cannot perceive the world as it is without imposing meaning and order, without distilling and distorting it through the lens of our own subjectivity, perhaps then all writing, too, no matter how realistic or autobiographical it aims to be, must inevitably be a work of fiction.

This all may sound rather abstract for what purports to be a short tale of a writer’s escape from ennui, and to be certain, Ruge covers a lot of philosophical ground in just over a hundred pages. Remarkably, though, one doesn’t reach the end with the impression of having read a treatise parading as fiction. Instead, thanks to Ruge’s mordant wit and flair for colorful detail, Cabo de Gata feels more like a strange but welcome retreat.

Sutton Strother is a writer, teacher, Kentucky native, and New York transplant. Her work has appeared in Underwired, Fogged Clarity, and Natural Bridge.​

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