Acclaimed as the work of a "boy Thoreau," this brief, charming story of a mythical animal was published in 1930 when Patrick O'Brian, who went on to write the celebrated Aubrey/Maturin series of historical sea novels, was just 15. With its detached, authoritative narrative voice, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard
reads more like a novel for young adults than a book written by one--though it is hard to imagine a grown-up writer including so many vividly realized hunting scenes, culminating in spurting blood and gore. In the introduction to this reprint of his juvenilia, O'Brian remembers being given a copy of "the Reverend Mr. Wood's Natural History
, a mid-nineteenth century edition illustrated with a fair number of engravings." Already something of a naturalist, the boy "devoured the book." It must have spurred his interest in predatory animals, for Caesar
demonstrates exceptional knowledge of the environments and habits of leopards and other large hunting cats of India and Asia. O'Brian's odd, matter-of-fact tone also derives from books like the Reverend Mr. Wood's, and provides much of the twisted pleasure to be found in Caesar
. After his mother dies in a forest fire, the panda-leopard is forced to teach himself the fine points of hunting. One day he spots a large herd of pigs, strangely unguarded by a boar or sounder pig. He approaches cautiously, then notices a tall creature standing on two legs. Eventually his hunger overcomes him, and he snatches up a small pig, breaking its neck. "Unluckily the pig had time to squeal," writes the young O'Brian,
and this attracted the man who, with a cry, picked up a stone. His arm went back and the stone flew towards me like a bird. It hit me on the nose and hurt me more than the bee sting which I had had when a cub. It hit me on the same tender place which had never quite got better, and it angered me beyond words, and dropping the pig I charged, running low along the ground. Then I sprang straight at him.
With a shriek, the man tries to fend off the panda-leopard with a stick. "We fell together," Caesar recalls, "but his skull was cracked like an egg-shell. It was ridiculously easy to kill him." When he is eventually captured and tamed, Caesar learns to appreciate one or two humans, though his contempt for the species never diminishes. A wonderful read, recalling Kipling's Kim
and The Jungle Book
. --Regina Marler
From Kirkus Reviews
Juvenilia by the now-deceased OBrian (Blue at the Mizzen, 1999, etc.), a fantasy of a panda-leopards coming of age first published in 1930. In his foreword to the tale of the half-leopard, half-panda creature, OBrian writes, ``I doubt if my present self would have liked the twelve-year-old boy who wrote this talehe certainly was not very popular among his brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, that remote being and myself, his aged descendant, are linked by a common delight in reading. . . .[T]he boy was also something of an invalid . . . and spent long periods of time in the incubator room [his fathers, a bacteriologists, laboratory]. . . . [T]he tasks left a good deal of time unoccupied, and since it was obviously unthinkable to bring a book to read, the boy, by some mental process I can no longer recall, decided to write one for himself, thus discovering an extraordinary joy which has never left himthat of both reading and writing at the same time.'' Though this story was written by OBrian, there is little connection to his later work, save the deep interest in the natural world shown by the famous character in his Aubrey-Maturin series of novels, Dr. Stephen Maturin. The tale, written in the first person, displays the talents of a precocious adolescent who already was adept at painting a setting and filling it with characters that are believable. The natural world, red in tooth and claw, is depicted as cold and harsh; in an early episode the young panda-leopards brother wanders out of the home and is torn apart by a hyena. The young panda-leopard has a variety of encounters with a variety of creatures, both animal and human, but there is little of the narrative drive that propels readers through OBrians later fiction. Though clearly the writing of an adolescent, sure to be a hit for anyone who cant believe there are no more novels from a modern master.-- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.