IN 2005, the much-loved author Elliot Perlman visited Amsterdam. He was on tour for his newly-released book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. While enjoying a walk by the canals, he couldn’t help but notice a very happy cat — “the most blissed out, contented living thing I have ever seen” — sunbathing in a bay window, said Perlman over tea in an Elsternwick cafe.
“As a writer, you tend to think, what if? What could be the antithesis of that moment for the cat? Probably waking up to find that a dog had moved in. That would just be absolutely abhorrent and throw everything into chaos and distress,” he explained.
It was the hypothetical scenario which would be the catalyst for The Adventures of Catvinkle, Perlman’s latest title released on bookshelves by Puffin Books last week.
The concept had marinated over the last 14 years. Shortly after visiting Amsterdam, Perlman spent time with his sister’s family who were living in the UK. When his four-year-old niece asked her uncle to tell her a story, it began with a Dutch cat. Over the years, she would not forget, drawing pictures and encouraging Perlman to put pen to paper on The Adventures of Catvinkle.
While Perlman may be best known for his list of bestselling and award-winning adult-fiction novels, including Three Dollars, The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming and The Street Sweeper, this is his first foray into children’s books.
“It was liberating in the sense that I could be funny,” — a departure from the darker themes explored in his adult fiction, reflects Perlman
The Adventures of Catvinkle follows the pampered feline, Catvinkle who lives in Amsterdam with her friend, the barber, Mr Sabatini. But her world is turned upside down one chilly morning when Mr Sabatini brings home the wide-eyed and innocent lost Dalmatian, Ula — inspired by Perlman’s own childhood pet Dalmatian, actually named Ula. Drama ensures as the two characters learn to trust each other, but can cats and dogs really be friends?
Cleverly written, the book is a delight. Perlman beautifully imbues relatable human personality traits in the colourful array of characters. A particular favourite is the wise and undeniably Jewish flavoured Russian wolfhound, “Lobus the brave dog Lobus” whom the reader could vividly imagine tucked in a corner of the Cafe Scheherazade of yesteryear, over a piece of strudel.
“I think the book is very Jewish,” muses Perlman.
The idea of tikkun olam is a strong undertone — a notion which “infuses all of my work”, says Perlman.
“I think tikkun olam in two words is my animating drive as a writer,” he adds.
“There is also a lot of Jewish humour, a lot of word play — and a lot of chutzpah, particularly with Catvinkle.”
The 230-page novel is a fun and whimsical read for children — and no less enjoyable for parents.
“I really wanted to make it as funny as I could for children while also having a layer for adults as well. The more entertaining it is for the adult, the better it is going to be for the child, and then together, they can bond over their enjoyment of the story,” says Perlman.
But beyond the joy found in the lively and loveable characters, their overarching adventures are vehicles for which moral dilemmas are presented for examination by young readers. Themes of bullying, xenophobia, and racism are raised — but Perlman does so in a way that is nuanced and with narrative purpose; without being preachy or overly didactic.
It was Perlman’s own response to a world in which he felt “the resurgence of racism, extreme nationalism, bullying and intolerance had become mainstream” after the release of his last title The Street Sweeper in 2011.
“It was so distressing to me. I felt completely helpless and wondered where do you start.”
A cat named Catvinkle was the answer.
“I hope the book provides an example of difference as not being a negative, but just being different, and showing that you can have a best friend from another group and promoting tolerance and understanding in the place of fear,” he said.
“I am also hoping that it encourages a kind of moral bravery in the face of bullying, so that even if it is not you that is being picked on, but someone near you, you recognise it, and stand up to help.
“If everybody stands up to help, bullying becomes impossible. I am trying to get that across with humour, through Catvinkle … fighting racism and bullying, one cat at a time.”