In her first book, “I & Claudius,” British writer Clare de Vries went on a tour of the United States with an unusual traveling companion: a dashing chocolate-brown Burmese cat called Claudius. De Vries and Claudius lived together for some 20 years. When he died, she decided to find a replacement, as a series of failed relationships with men had led her to believe “it is far wiser to get a cat to love.”
“Of Cats and Kings” chronicles her solo journey through Myanmar and Thailand in search of Burmese and Siamese cats. Though Claudius is obviously not able to tag along on this jaunt he is there in spirit. He materializes in grotty hotel rooms amid “a rich smell of frankincense, candles, champagne and all things lovely” and is a surprisingly (for a cat) erudite presence; he can lecture on the Buddha’s eightfold path and quote Thomas Hardy.
Intellectual as the ghost of Claudius may be, he, like de Vries, isn’t able to enlighten us on the exotic origins of Burmese and Siamese felines. The Siamese, with its cream body and dark markings on its face, ears, feet and tail, was first introduced to the West at a Crystal Palace exhibit in the late 19th century; the British consul general in Bangkok had brought back a pair of Siamese cats given to him by the King of Siam. The breed was once a favorite of Thai royals and has been spotted in ancient temple paintings, yet no one knows exactly where it came from.
The Burmese cat, which is most commonly brown with golden-yellow eyes, is even more mysterious. Its origins are linked to another genealogically elusive breed, the Birman, a long-haired cat once known as the Sacred Cat of Burma. Though de Vries offers up tantalizing tidbits (we learn, for instance, that the first Burmese cat in the West was one Wong Mau who lived in San Francisco in the 1930s with her geneticist owner), she misses an opportunity to delve deeper into the intriguing legends that surround these animals.
Indeed, with such a wonderful premise for exploring both Myanmar and Thailand, it is a shame de Vries limits herself to the most well-visited sights — a puppet show and pagodas in Myanmar, an elephant round-up and a Thai boxing match in Thailand. The book reads like “Bridget Jones” when de Vries sizes up male travelers (Chad: “doesn’t like racist jokes, nice-looking, not boyfriend material, decent, sincere, sweet”) and wishes she wasn’t traveling so light (“without my razor I wake with my arm stretched up and think a tarantula is lying under my arm. Disgusting.”). The style can feel too cutesy; at a pagoda in Myanmar de Vries describes the sun-baked marble floor as “ow-ow boiling” and the shaded patches as “cool, cool, smooth.”
The language barrier proves an obstacle. When she asks her hotel receptionist in Yangon where she can find Burmese cats, de Vries is told to take a 14-hour journey to a town supposedly famous for them. But, when she arrives there, she finds she is in a town renowned, not for cats, but for nats (Myanmar deities). Such shenanigans make one wonder why de Vries didn’t simply hire a good translator.
When she tries to re-create the accents of Myanmar and Thai people speaking English, the resulting dialogue is, at its best, grating and, at its worst, patronizing. On a street in Mandalay one man proclaims “I spee Ingleesh,” while a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok offers her “Special flend plice.”
The narrative is augmented with more considered, though not terribly in-depth, segments on government atrocities and human rights abuses in Myanmar.
De Vries eventually returns to London catless. Her search for the perfect feline companion proved unsatisfactory (she finds no likely contenders in Myanmar and only a handful of candidates in Thailand). She did, however, learn some bigger lessons and realized that the object of her quest was waiting at home in the form of the boyfriend she left behind: “the one I found to love was in human rather than feline form.”
It’s what the spirit-cat Claudius, with his helpful hints on the Buddhist correlation between desire and dissatisfaction, had been trying to tell her all along, if only she had been listening.