In a world where children and young adults are constantly fed unrealistic images about their bodies and their clothes and even their personalities, there is an even greater need for stories that portray issues that really matter. Not through doctrination or dogmatism, but through tales that inspire, comfort and raise the spirit. Chilean political activist, and former enemy of the Pinochet regime, Luis Sepulveda explores issues such as international friendship, environmentalism and social engagement in his international bestseller The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly, first published in 1996 and recently republished by Alma Books.
What it’s about
Zorba the cat, a resident of Hamburg, waves goodbye to his humans when they go on holiday and prepares for a relaxing time of his own, when a seagull collapses on his balcony, moments from death after getting caught up in an oil spill. Zorba ignores his instincts to kill or eat the bird and, instead, insists on seeking help. Before he can leave, the seagull lays an egg and begs Zorba to look after it and teach the baby bird inside how to fly. Zorba agrees but still runs off to ask his other feline friends for assistance, certain that they can help the bird. However, when he, Einstein, Segretario and the Colonel return to the balcony, the seagull has passed away and the four cats join together to bury her and mourn her death. At this point, Zorba begins his care duties of the egg until, twenty days later, it hatches and the emerging bird calls him ‘Mummy’.
The rest of the novel focuses on how Zorba and his friends try to keep the gull, who they name ‘Lucky’, safe. Segretario and the Colonel bring it food every day from the Italian restaurant where they live, and Zorba cares for Lucky as if she was his kitten, cleaning her, encouraging her, loving her. However, soon it becomes obvious that there is one area of her education that cats really aren’t equipped to deal with: flying lessons. The bookish Einstein reads up on aerodynamics and studies Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine drawings but nothing works. This drives Zorba to suggest the unimaginable – to break the ‘cat taboo’ and speak to humans to ask for their help.
It is at this point that author Luis Sepulveda’s message comes through clearly – humans cannot necessarily be trusted. The cats query what humans would do with a cat who could talk and their opinions are unfavourable: “Almost certainly they would cage it and put it through all manner of stupid tests, because in general, humans are incapable of accepting a creature unlike them could understand them and try to be understood.” Examples given are lions put in cages and circuses, dolphins put in aquatic shows to entertain humans, and parrots, forced to live in tiny cages and imitate their owners’ voices. The cats have battled and beaten their instincts to eat the bird but they fear that humans are beyond change. At this point, the book could become a real downer on mankind but there is still hope – Zorba identifies one human who can and does help them – a poet who “…doesn’t know how to fly with birds’ wings, but when I’ve listened to him it’s always made me feel he’s flying with his words.”
This story is not really an attack against human nature. It’s more a modern fable about what can be achieved when everyone works together, and the rewards you reap when you help others and remain true to your word. Zorba sums up the main theme eloquently when she tells Lucky about her true identity as a bird:
“We love you as a gull. We feel that you love us too, that we’re your friends, your family, and we want you to know that with you we’ve learnt something that makes us very proud: we’ve learnt to appreciate and respect and love someone who’s different from us…”
Although a cat, and male, Zorba is Lucky’s mother – she never doubts it. He creates a safe world for his fledgling but, when the time comes, he unselfishly encourages Lucky to be the bird she is. Like a child who is reluctant to leave the nest, Lucky resists, unwilling to leave her feline family, whom she has come to adore. But the day, or night arrives, when she must meet her fate.
When I first started reading the story, I was worried that I would find it too upsetting. Books about mothers who die, leaving their young ones, particularly upset me and the beginning, where Kengah (the seagull) becomes immersed in oil saddened me. However, Sepulveda’s narration (and Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation) deal with this in a non-sentimental fashion – there is sadness of course but it’s not dwelt upon excessively. There is a kind of practicality in Kengah’s actions and the way in which she enlists the help of Zorba. Her funeral is moving, with all the animals in Hamburg howling their grief for a lost one, but, as a mother, what got to me more was Lucky’s inevitable maturity and the moment when she literally flees the nest. As a parent, Zorba discovers that you have to let your child fly – to urge them to take those shaky steps or flights, to find their way in the world, while your heart is breaking. I will think of Zorba when this day arrives in our house.
As always, Satoshi Kitamura’s illustrations offer a sympathetic and complementary touch to the text. He captures the sweet and quirky nature of Zorba particularly well, and my favourite picture must be Zorba cuddling Kengah’s freshly laid egg. The partnership between illustrator and author works very well in this story, and indeed the biographical details on the inside back cover reveal that Kitamura is studying Spanish in Japan and working his way through Sepulveda’s works in the original language.
I really loved this book. I read it more or less in one sitting and was caught up in the story and the emotions it invoked. I look forward to reading more by Luis Sepulveda in the future.
Please note that while I received a review copy of this book from Alma Books, this did not in any way affect my opinions.