REVIEW: Morte by Robert Repino
Mort(e) is a former housecat known previously as Sebastian in the days before the change. In the years after the transformation that gave animals self-awareness, Mort(e) chose a new name for its dual purpose. He tells us that it means death with the “e” (hence the parentheses), but without it, he’s just a regular guy. Mort(e) is a soldier in the war to exterminate humans — in his post-apocalyptic world, the surface animals have become two-legged beings, and joined the ants in the “war with no name.” Yes, you read that right. The cats and dogs have joined the ants — car-sized ants — responding to the commands of their queen. Hymenoptera Unus, the Daughter of the Misfit Queen, orders the Colony’s every move with chemical signals the ants have translated into interspecies language. Robert Repino’s Morte never stops moving, and it’s such a cinematic, fast-paced adventure that we’re willing to go along with the author’s bizarre, complicated mythology. Expect to give your cat or dog some side-eye while you read, though. Repino’s wild imagination has its base in the everyday behaviors of our pets.
Morte raises issues of progress and teleology. What might progress mean, if directed with the determination and singular focus of the ants? They’ve taken pursuit of science to the extreme, studying the flawed human culture so they might overtake it. The Queen realizes the humans’ weak point, and she goes for the jugular:
[T]he Queen realize[d] how easy it would be to turn the humans against themselves. Homo sapiens had a weakness for their language, a sort of gullibility. Whereas knowledge was stored with the Queen, ensuring almost complete infallibility from the moment a pair of antennae came into contact, humans would have to bicker over translations, authorship, historical context, symbolism and meaning. They had to rely on the faulty memory of the storytellers, the biased interpretations of the scribes, and the whims of inefficient bureaucrats to pass down their collected knowledge.
Language, that one attribute which humans believe separates and gives them dominion over the animal kingdom becomes the entry point for the Queen’s attack. Repino turns human triumph into fallacy and weakness. The ants exploit the humans’ desire for meaning and simple narrative. After Mort(e)’s transformation from “happy housecat” to “two-footed soldier,” he quickly makes a name for himself as the baddest of the bad. He attacks humans and doesn’t flinch at the gore that comes along with battle or disease. This is a quest and what drives Mort(e)’s actions is a search for his long-lost companion, a dog named Sheba who he befriended in the days before he transformed and the battle began. Sheba runs off and Mort(e) spends years searching for her in the ruins of their previous society.
To keep his feet moving, all he had to do was to imagine himself, as he had so many years earlier, growing old and dying alone in the same place. Still calling out his friend’s name. He had this mission, or he had nothing. It was awful, Mort(e) thought. And then he thought, But it’s beautiful, too. This quest was the only beautiful thing left in the entire world.
Repino is aware of the humor in his prose yet buried in the bold actions of feline, canine, and insect strife is a softness for friendship, love, and faith. Morte evolves into a morality tale, asking if any of the beliefs of humans, ants or cats can be trusted. Nothing is off the table in Repino’s morality tale; there’s a message in the end, but I won’t spoil it. I will say that Repino uses his ant and animal characters as both observers and allegorical stand-ins for humans. Every human trait is critiqued equally. The animals become satirical grotesques — “human,” even though they don’t want to be. When a virus overtakes the land, Mort(e) is sent to investigate. But the virus, EMSAH, like the other assumptions of his fellow animal soldiers and citizens, is not what it seems. “My investigation is complete,” he says. “EMSAH is not what you think it is.” Repino reminds us that ideas can infect minds just as easily as viruses invade bodies.
Morte is told from an omniscient third person point of view that shifts from character to character. The Queen is particularly brutal. She holds the knowledge of generations of ants in her mind at all times, knowledge of science and chemistry and destruction. But she cannot understand connection or relationships, and she hates anything that she cannot understand.
[T]o her, Mort(e)’s quest mirrored the basest desires of the humans: an escape from death, an exemption from suffering, a chance to live like gods themselves. Love was a word these mammals used to make up for the fact that they could not join as one, as the ants could with each other, as the Queen had once done so completely with her mother. Love was an illusion, a smoke screen that masked the humans’ capacity for hatred.
By the end of Morte, labels like “god”, “pet” and “human” do not function the way they had originally. Repino’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, but the story never stalls. There’s an adventurous sense of propulsion to the allegorical yarn. Is it crazy? Definitely. Will you turn the pages as quickly as you can? You bet. Robert Repino’s Morte is, page after page, an infectious tale.
by Robert Repino