DECEMBER 2, 2019
IN 1965, the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal bought a small house in Kersko, an hour east of Prague. He had begun to see some success as a writer, and sought privacy and respite, as well as some space between himself and the watchful eye of the government. Then stray cats began to flock to the house. The succession was endless. Hrabal spent weekends and some weekdays in Kersko. When he arrived, the cats came out to greet him; when he left, they watched him go. Walking down the lane to leave, he’d look back, and “[i]n every available chink in the fence,” he wrote in All My Cats, his memoir of Kersko and the cats, “there would be a cat’s head poking out.”
Hrabal loved the cats; in fact, he adored them. “I never tired of looking at her,” he wrote of Blackie, a particular favorite, “and she was so fond of me she’d practically swoon whenever I picked her up and held her to my forehead and whispered sweet words in her ear.” He fed the cats milk and meat; when it rained, he dried their paws with a dishcloth; they slept in his bed. But his devotion turned quickly, if not immediately, to obsessive, maddening worry. In his memoir, this turn comes five pages in. On his way to Kersko, Hrabal worried about having a car accident. “[I]f anything happened to me,” he insisted, “who would give milk to my cats?” In fact, he did have a wreck, in the wake of which he wrote this book. That was in 1983. Hrabal died in 1997, when he fell from the window of a hospital. Whether he slipped while feeding pigeons, or jumped, or was pushed, has long been a matter of controversy — and for good reason: in Prague, defenestration has a long, weird history.
In any case, Hrabal’s memoir, All My Cats — recently reissued by New Directions in a beautiful translation by Paul Wilson — describes Hrabal’s cats, his love for them, his fear for them, his exasperation with them, and, finally, his brutality toward them. For decades, Hrabal oscillated between Prague and Kersko, a civilized society and a society of cats. For decades, he fed and kept the cats company. There were scores of them. He began to think he was going mad, or perhaps wished he was. They made demands on him — vehement demands. Who was he without the cats? Who was he with them?
This is a slim book; it barely tops a hundred pages. It is about Hrabal’s cats and, then again, it isn’t: it’s difficult to say, exactly. Hrabal writes in a manner that is distinctly — forgive me, but I can’t find another way to describe it — catlike. It’s so tempting to cast about in these pages for metaphors — in the cats themselves, in his love, his violence, his worry, his guilt — but Hrabal eludes metaphors. This isn’t to say that nothing in the book means anything but itself, but sometimes it’s hard to pin down what else it might mean. There are moments of exquisite tenderness and others of deep dread, and Hrabal leaps from one to the other with — yes — feline agility, sometimes in the space of a single paragraph.
“What are we going to do with all those cats?” Hrabal’s wife asks. All through the book, she goes without a name, and that question — repeated again and again with the relentlessness of a bad dream, or a machine — is all she has to say. “A cat showed up and, just my luck, she fell in love with me,” Hrabal writes. Cats appeared at the house, and stayed, and some of the cats had kittens, and then the kittens had kittens. There was apparently no — what’s the phrase? — population control. “[W]e were constantly on edge,” Hrabal writes, “worrying that if we opened the door, a deluge of cats would come flooding into the hallway and the kitchen.”
His neighbor, he tells us, builds a bird feeder out of an old hollowed-out radio, and mounts it on a post. Then Hrabal finds Blackie in the radio with a fresh litter of kittens and, wretchedly, “I rested my head on top of the feeder and held both hands out to Blackie, pressing my head on the old radio as though I were listening to news of fresh catastrophes in the world.” Another cat has just had kittens, too. The cats are multiplying like rabbits. One day, Hrabal “mustered [his] resolve,” sent his wife to the neighbors’, dropped six kittens into a mail sack, and then beat them to death against the trunk of the tree. Then he dug a grave in the woods, picked six geraniums, and dropped the geraniums into the grave with the cats.
It’s hard to keep reading, and hard to stop. I found — to tell you the truth — that the edges of my vision began to waver. Hrabal compares himself to SS officers; American soldiers in Vietnam; and Turks who, in 1911, massacred a village (he doesn’t say which village, or where). “I already knew that from then on,” he writes, “I would have to live with constant guilt and that […] those kittens, those six kittens, would haunt me like a bad conscience whenever I’d lie awake toward morning, unable to sleep.”
“What did it avail me that those cats,” he goes on, “regaled me with affection? It only intensified my shame and guilt.”
There is a way in which the book is, broadly, about identity — Hrabal’s, of course: not only who he was with or without the cats, or who he was having killed the cats, but who he was having killed the cats and then written about it. Likewise, his narrative embodies not only the fear of madness but the giddy performance of that fear, the degradation of shame and the degradation of its public rehearsal. He is like a conductor of the tragic and the absurd, gesturing spastically with his awful — and sweet — baton.
Near the end of the book comes a great, clashing cacophony, a combustion that seems, in hindsight, inevitable. Hrabal could have ended the book here, with a fervid resolution in which all his guilt is finally forgiven. But he pushes past it. His guilt precedes the cats, and it extends beyond them. “[W]hat I had at the bottom of [things,] from childhood on, was a feeling of guilt,” he writes. He ends on a ghostly image: a swan is trapped in the ice at the shore of a small river. Hrabal lies down on his stomach and inches toward her, but when he gets close, she hisses and jabs at him, “and I knew she would break her own legs, which were frozen solid in the ice, rather than let me touch her.” He leaves, hoping for a thaw, but when he returns the next morning, she’s still there, frozen, her head tucked under her wing. “[N]ow,” he writes,
covered with drifting snow, she lay there like a beautiful sculpture, and my heart felt shame at the sight, her neck and head covered by her airy wing so that they made an arch, a mystical unity, as human hands do when they come together in prayer.
Natalia Holtzman is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was named a 2018–’19 Emerging Critic by the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in the Star Tribune, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere.