Two strangers arrive at a hotel in an unnamed and unplaced town. They need help, but before providing help, the townsfolk want to know who they are and what has happened to them. If the strangers can’t provide that information what are the townsfolk to do?
The cage is an extraordinarily intense metaphor for the dynamics of modern human communities: who belongs, who can join and what rights the community members have regarding their self-defence. The strangers, who are initially given a room and food, become of concern when they cannot provide their names, place of origin, or nature of the disaster that has caused them to flee on foot and in rags. They are invited to make a piece of art with wire to indicate that nature of their origins, and then that piece of art is copied and turned against them, turned into a cage, where they are trapped within their own otherness. They are given nicknames (Doctor and Mole), but these are purely so the townsfolk can refer to each one – when there is only one, they are referred to as ‘the stranger’.
Throughout The cage, the strangers are likened to animals. They become like exhibits in a zoo, they develop stereotypic movements in their cage, and they become defined by their excrement, the sight and smells the source of fun for scatalogically minded children. They are also likened to domestic livestock, Doctor at one stage being compared to a thirsty cow, and they suffer the injuries and indignities of neglected domestic animals. The other comparison frequently made is that they are seen as images or statues, inanimate things it is easy to look at and talk about with no compunction. As the novel progresses plans are made for a stone memorial of the strangers’ tragedy, a monument that will replace the living beings that are an inconvenience to the smooth life of the town.
The narrator of the story is the nephew of the hotel owners, himself a ‘refugee’ who has been offered a home and from whom “some gratitude was expected”. We also don’t learn his name, just his nickname, Sport. He also shares with the strangers our knowing about his toilet habits, he often makes his observations while visiting the loo. Sport has memories of avoiding visits to his aunt and uncle when a child, not wanting to witness the ridiculing of his father, a school teacher who upset the community pattern by becoming a farmer. Sport visits an aquarium and comments on the “the complete absence of interest by one creature in another”. And that is how The cage sees our modern communities – a story is told of a boat trip where someone falls in the sea and the first call is for photos to be taken.
You would think that Sport, who has experienced entering a new community, to be sympathetic to the plight of the strangers, but, “With the strangers, I feel I am caught between looking at a crisis and wanting to solve it.” A Trust is formed, and Sport is tasked with observation and reporting, he starts a ledger, he hides behind the rules laid down and decisions made by the Trust regarding the treatment of the strangers, and the responses to their requests. Sport has sympathy, however “What is the point in sympathy that does not produce a change in circumstances?”, missing the point that he could make such a change. But as his aunt reminds him, “You are not the strangers’ keeper”, a lovely pun on one in charge of lesser being and a protector or guardian of an equal. In choosing this path of reporting within the confines of the Trust’s rules, Sport is also trapped, finding no way of reporting on the “strange new contortions of personality I find myself going through.”
The cage is set nowhere and everywhere, it is where school children sing Pōkarekare ana but also where they keep hamsters – so both hemispheres. The Trust wants to know everything about the strangers and what happened to them, so they might know what steps to take to avoid it happening to them. They put Sport in place to give them information much as we might watch the TV nightly, impassively watching the plight of refugees and those in war torn countries, calculating where any danger might be relevant to us. When the wall for the memorial is being built, Sport looks out the window and sees a split screen, the strangers filthy in the mud on one side and his uncle playing tennis in tennis whites against the wall on the other. With just a slight adjustment of our eyes, or the channel, the misery of others is gone. Like Sport, we decide to see how ‘they’ will get on left to their own devices.
The strangers cannot tell of their experiences, and the Trust lays down rules that they in turn must not be informed – Sport gives them his nickname but they know no other names, or whether authorities have been informed, or when their incarceration will end. The Trust does not even admit to incarceration, the strangers entered the cage (as a piece of sculpture) willingly, they won’t give their identities, so strictly speaking there is no-one detained. As with the animals in the zoo that Sport frequently visits, “…there is a price to pay for not being local.” In The cage communities can’t be sympathetic with people if they don’t know what has happened to them, but the comparisons between the strangers and the rough sleepers in the town suggest that sympathy can only really arises when the community-as-a-whole experiences a problem directly, just seeing it in their midst isn’t enough. The haunted look of the strangers is put down to whatever they have experienced, not what they are experiencing.
What do we find out about the strangers? They aren’t used to electric light, they are resilient when experiencing atrocious weather, they refuse to swap their clothes for new (seen as a refusal to assimilate), and give the reason as not wanting to dishonor those whose clothes they are – those who “in a moment of great misfortune had lost everything, all their possessions, in some cases even their skins”, they have nightmares of airborne dangers, and they are used to dealing with those in authority. And they are themselves sympathetic and conscientious, Doctor often offers to help the townsfolk (hence his nickname), he is courteous and polite, and at one point Mole ushers a child who has climbed onto the cage, to the safety of his father (reminiscent of Koola, the gorilla who carried an unconscious three year old boy to safety after he had fallen into Koola’s enclosure at Brooklyn Zoo). But none of this makes the strangers into ‘one of the community’, even when Mole joins in to help the town in a crisis, he is not accepted as anything other than ‘other’.
The cage is a disturbing read – and sad to say, a totally transparent one, we know immediately what is being referred to, and how unjust and unfair communities can be. It is a tale about what is demanded for what should be free: care and support. The price for these is full disclosure, no space for healing, and a lack of privacy. The price is those things that those who have lost everything might chose to hold onto – an observation once again from the zoo: “There is not much the ibex may keep to itself, except for what it is to be an ibex.” Highly recommended.