Set in rural China during the 1970s, Ruyan Meng’s debut novel Only the Cat Knows is told from the point of view of a young factory worker married to a woman who stays home with their three children, two of whom suffer from ramifications of malnutrition. His wife could in theory work, but their sickly children need much attention and there’s no one else to care for them. The narrator’s salary falls short of monthly expenses for medication and food. Under no illusions that life is fair, he nonetheless sees others in his factory receive paychecks with bonuses and raises.
Not enough for the month. Not enough for the month. The words nibbled at him like gnats as he lay down and covered himself with a cotton quilt. Closing his eyes, he imagined the green quilt, tall and heavy as a wall, pressing against his chest, bearing down on him, the breaths oozing out of him, smothering him deeper with each gasp. This smothering is what debt feels like, he thought.
Then one day, he receives a 10 yuan bonus. He normally makes 37 yuan and change, so this is no small amount. The narrator dashes off to a grain store after receiving his bonus, but as he reaches into his pocket to pay, he realizes he’s lost the 10 yuan. He searches everywhere, but cannot find it. After the shop closes for the evening, he returns to see if he can locate the missing yuan and then remembers a black cat in the grain store.
Damn it, the cat was probably watching him from behind these very doors! He thought, That cat must have seen me sitting here all alone. He knows everything. He probably knows where the money is. If the money was stolen, he probably witnessed it! Thoroughly convinced by this vision, he began to thump on the door with both hands.
Sensing that he’s lost his only chance at a bonus—he already owes his sister 90 yuan from various loans she’s given him—the narrator places unrealistic expectations on the cat to show him where the missing money is located, whence the title of the book.
As the story continues, the narrator sinks deeper into desperation and resorts to unthinkable measures to find more money, no matter the consequences. At some point, he becomes startled by a black cat.
The cat from the grain shop! He almost shouted it. His throat burned, as if he’d swallowed a piece of blazing hot tofu too late to spit it out. Trying to compose himself, he looked again, and felt a little reassured. No, no, this must be a wild cat—this cat had green eyes, not the yellowish-amber of the cat from the grain shop.
Meng skillfully depicts the narrator’s unraveling through his paranoia about this cat. The book takes on an Edgar Allan Poe-like quality with its darkness and desperation; unlike Poe’s story “The Black Cat”, Meng’s narrator does not despise the cat. He has too many other worries.