[New Directions; 2019]
Tr. from the Czech by Paul Wilson
The reviews are in for Bohumil Hrabal’s latest, and things aren’t looking pretty. An unnamed Amazon customer, egged-on by their own anonymity, writes searchingly in a one-star scorcher of the disaster that is All My Cats: “Very simply . . . this is NOT a book Cat Lovers will want to read or to share.” Meanwhile, Courtney, whose credentials include being a “cat mom of 3,” calls the book “sickening” in a review that is, sadly, similarly star-deficient: “I’m throwing this book out because I don’t want to donate this and have someone else feel the same horror I did.” User Casper & Boo, in a samurai-slice of concision, fleetly distills the whole controversy: “🙁 wish i hadn’t gotten this book!!”
The critic’s work is, famously, a thankless task. Most of the time, you’re forced to slog through whole reams of bland prose, weed-whacking through a dense jungle of half-baked plots and flightless ideas, all the while taking notes and treating each book, despite all evidence to the contrary, as something sacred and worthy, by virtue of its sheer writtenness, of commentary — and then, as though that weren’t enough to break the critic’s perpetually scoliosis-threatened back, sometimes you’ve got to deal with a book that’s actively set out to deceive you. By all measures, Hrabal’s All My Cats is one of those books. With its warm milk of a title and ebullient cover art, it seems hellbent on selling itself as a wooly heartwarmer — a cat lover’s memoir designed to remind you, a fellow feline infatuate, just why you’re so enamored of the household lions — when, in reality, it’s a violent romp, a coruscating horror story draped in crisp sheep’s clothing.
The great news is that if you’re not looking for a cardigan in book form, then All My Cats is an extraordinary, heartrending read. Hrabal, a Czech writer and forgotten giant of postwar literature, is renowned for his zippy, tragi-comic tales of twentieth-century repression and rural life, told in a rumbustious, earthy prose style. Published originally in 1983, All My Cats is a memoir charting a few years in Hrabal’s life, after he’d achieved massive fame and financial stability, which allowed him to purchase a cottage in the small village of Kersko, an hour’s drive from Prague. For the most part, the book takes its structure from Hrabal’s periodic retreats to this restfully bucolic setting, where his cats, abundantly loved, are allowed to roam freely. After an almost perfunctory patch of homey scene-setting, though, the text jackknifes into darkly psychological territory, as the superabundance of cats at Kersko necessitates a brutal series of mercy killings that Hrabal describes in gruesome, pulpy prose.
But it would be reductive to claim the book is powered only by its shock effects. Above the baseline brutality of All My Cats Hrabal weaves a startling and profound meditation on the zigzagging dialectic of care and violence, a befuddled study of the ways these drives intertwine, blend, and support one another in a haunting, inescapable form of symbiosis. There are, rest assured, plenty of limpid, tender scenes of interspecies communion — enough, by my count, to eke tears from the serest eye — and Hrabal’s treatment of his cats is by and large marked by a deep sensitivity. “When it rained,” he explains, “I’d dry their paws with a dishcloth, because when morning came, when the fire had died out, all five cats would jump into bed with me.” The milk and honey of Hrabal’s lovingness lends the book much of its charm, though it’s difficult to appreciate these descriptions as standalone moments. The yeasty, buoyant formula that sends Hrabal’s stories rambling off like Catherine wheels — incorporating, greedily, everything they touch — produces a fictional vision in which tenderness is always one step away from brutality. The spellbindingly heimisch details of the text are, you quickly realize, only moments of stall before a great plunge.
Hrabal’s relationship to his cats is a tortured one, whinging creakily between abuse and absolution; over time, the alternations of care and violence become smaller and smaller, until they’re embedded in the briefest moments, the most fleeting sensations: “I stroked the kittens with dread because the longer I allowed my hand to linger, the more I knew that this was the hand that would have to randomly choose some of those kittens and usher them out of this world.” What Hrabal is so adept at showing is the way that intimacy and abuse can begin to circle about one another in decaying orbits, commingling and becoming inseparable, so that their fusion interlards the finest particles of experience — Hrabal’s soul-searching pendulations sink down to the molecular level, lending the book an outsize sense of drama.
Complicating matters further is Hrabal’s depressive personality — his mental life is marked by a tendency to swing between points of ecstasy and squalor — which in turn is complicated by a hovering prophecy delivered by the fortune teller Mařenka, a former nurse who “would walk the streets of our little town in a white turban with a green tear-drop jewel on it.” After gathering wild mushrooms one day, Hrabal recounts, Mařenka “predicted not only that I would become a writer, but that I would find myself in a situation that would drive me to hang myself on a willow tree beside a river.” Throughout All My Cats, the specter of suicide leers like a death’s head at the turn of every page, its presence summoned up by the oversensitive surface of Hrabal’s psyche (it seems significant, in this vein, that Hrabal’s foretold hanging should be associated with the lithesome, shivering, perpetually unsettled willow tree).
Hrabal’s is a filamental soul, turning like a weathervane at the merest sign of wind. “For more than forty years I have been constantly unnerved by sensory phenomena,” he explains, so much so that at one point a nervous attack is brought by the sound of “a leaf caught in a spider’s web, fluttering against the window pane.” In the context of cat-killing, the terrible oscillations of Hrabal’s mental state produce a high-flying, almost demonic bathos; after swinging a kitten-filled sack against a tree, for instance, he’s possessed by the need to memorialize their passing:
And then I picked up a spade and in an out-of-the-way place among a stand of birch trees, I dug a deep pit into which I dumped the damp contents of the sack. But then I couldn’t help myself and I ran back to my cottage and picked six geraniums, and when I got back, I threw those flowers into the grave.
“Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression,” Augie March opines at the start of Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name, “if you hold down one thing you hold down the latter.” A similar sentiment is at play in All My Cats — suppression, both physical and mental, is a messy, erratic affair, apt to leap back like a buzzing power saw and score the hand that holds it. When Hrabal’s beloved cat Blackie comes down with a fever and begins to go into convulsions, clawing at him rabidly, Hrabal holds her horrent form down with a rag, then a blanket. But her howls and hisses only intensify:
The longer I held her down, the greater was my fear that, because she was so strong, if she slipped from my grasp, she would fling herself at me, so I pushed down harder and harder. Suddenly, something snapped, and she went limp. I was still on top of her, and when I removed the blanket I saw that she was dead. One terrible eye was still open, staring at me, and in that horrifying eye I could see everything I loathed about myself.
So much for care; so much for the sensitivity of love. The “misty remorse” that haunts Hrabal begins to congeal into a stony guilt, and in a characteristic bout of Hrabalian fancy, the specter of his disappeared cat Renda appears to him, dropping into his head like a clabbered memory and causing it to “swell to the size of the kitchen.” Renda impugns him, castigating and questioning, so that “in the end I came to the conclusion that one cannot even kill a cat, let alone a person, with impunity, nor can one with impunity expel a person, let alone a cat, without consequences.”
There’s a classic manic-depressive feel to All My Cats. Hrabal is, after all, an unlikely executioner — a balding, fubsy sort of Charon, ferrying his cat-souls into the next world through the musty portal of a mail bag. He is a bit of a saint, a holy fool — a great lover thrown into a world that demands death, and that treats him only with derision. A Bellovian cascade of neuroses begin to afflict him — his throat tightens up; his thyroid expands; a terminal buzzing takes up residence in his skull. Hrabal becomes convinced that absolution will arrive in the form of a celestial comeuppance, and the universe, as he sees it, promptly obliges. After a devastating car crash — his wife and he “were nearly crushed to death in a brown automobile with seat covers and a ceiling cloth the same color as the mail bag in which I had killed those poor cats” — he feels himself absolved: “I was saved, I was relieved of having my guilt and my bad conscience drive me to hang myself from the willow tree by the brook.”
But Hrabal’s maculated soul isn’t destined for such an expeditious dry-cleaning. In the book’s epilogue, he finds himself out walking on a crisp winter night, following a frozen brook. In the “deep, glittering twilight,” with the snow crackling under his boots, he discovers a swan trapped in the brook, its feet caulked in ice. He tries to rescue it, but is struck again and again by its frantic beak, and, with blood running down his hands, is forced to abandon the swan to its fate. Walking home, he reflects on his inability to save a living thing, and feels his guilt reentrench itself. It’s a scene of breathtaking subversion, and a stark reminder of the heavenly mockery of the world that irrupts so frequently into Hrabal’s fictions — you’d think, after all, that this is surely how salvation comes, in a wash of moonlight and crystalline silence, in the silver tabernacle of the night.
It would be hard to overstate how moving these final pages of are, and they only gain in emotional heft when you consider the peculiar circumstances surrounding Hrabal’s death. While staying in the Bulovka Hospital in Prague in the midwinter of 1997, Hrabal fell from a fifth floor window while attempting to feed some pigeons gathered on the ledge outside of his room — though of course, it’s an arrangement that smacks of suicide. Add to this the frequent presence of felos-de-se in his fiction and the sense of unbearable, objectless anguish that seems to percolate beneath his rollicking prose, and the pigeon story only becomes more suspect, an almost comically cute bookend to Hrabal’s career. From another angle, though, it really does feel like a perfectly apt cover-up, a fitting end for the famously dolorous raconteur. The violence that is the other end of caretaking, the dissolution of the self in the cared-for thing — it’s all there in Hrabal’s final tumble. The mystery and occlusion — the ironic indeterminacy of it all — is one final wink.
Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Tablet Magazine, and Hyperallergic.