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A Complicated Fondness: Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats

By Andrew Griffin.

Bohumil Hrabal, All My Cats (New Directions, 2019)

When my son was first born, I’d regularly envision myself dropping him from the balcony of our seventh-floor apartment.  It was, needless to say, distressing.  My therapist—gormless and keen to find quick answers—asked me if I’d ever loved anyone before, because it’s “natural to fear hurting people we love.”   It’s also, she said, natural to resent the people we love.  In her account, I was feeling the anxiety that operates as the underbelly of love, or the shame that grows from resenting your kids.  Because I don’t really believe in that sort of “natural feeling,” I went to a real doctor to get some Lexapro and my brain was better in a month or so.  I’m happy that I’ve never imagined dropping my younger daughter from high places, but we’d moved to a short house by the time she was born, so who knows.

Which is to say that—anxious, adoring, ashamed, obsessive—I understand Bohumil Hrabal’s account of love in his recently translated All My Cats, even if I don’t really want to.  It may or may not be natural to fear hurting those we love, and it may or may not be natural to resent those we love, but love, shame, and anxiety are so closely bound for Hrabal that they seem to be a single, familiar emotion.  It’s this compound emotion that fills the entirety of his memoir about life with many, many cats.  And like my time as a mad, new father, Hrabal’s memoir obsesses over a domestic scene that’s both deeply banal and a complex mini-world.  The home, for Hrabal, is a writing cabin in Kersko, an hour by car from Prague, that he bought it in 1965 after making money as a writer for the first time with  Closely Watched Trains.  However, the potentially idyllic cottage isn’t what his “friends claimed it was, an ideal place to write,” because it gradually filled with cats whom he adores and abuses and kills when he finds it necessary.  This killing preoccupies Hrabal, first as he violently answers his wife’s repeated question—“What will we do with all these cats?”—and then as his account of animal murder and human culpability expands to include his neighbor who shoots songbirds, scientists who abduct and experiment on feral animals, the beef industry, and veterinarians who practice vivisection to study cow hearts in vivo.  Kersko, in Hrabal’s account, is awash with animal blood, and much of it is on his hands.

Originally written in 1983 and recently translated by Paul Wilson, All My Cats seems surprisingly novel at the moment because it refuses the now common attempt to explore in any rigorous way the inner lives of the animals it features.  Where recent popular writing deals with animal life, it tends to struggle with  Thomas Nagel’s famous question : “What’s it like to be a bat?” But Hrabal’s book is more clearly about the brutal ease with which humans intervene in the world of animals and with the cost of that cruelty on our souls.  Charles Foster can pretend to be a badger for a year to understand badger life, and Frans de Waal may explore the possibility of simian chronestesia, and Jonathan Balcombe may recount what a fish “knows”, but Hrabal’s cats are figures who disappear under his obsessive, overweening love for them.  He loves his cats and, he insists, they reciprocate with curiously human emotions, loving him with an intensity that mirrors his own, “the way girls used to love me when I was young.”  And Hrabal’s cats know “precisely” what they mean to him, which brings them into a circle of care that makes his subsequent violence all the more unnerving.  “The cats were our children,” he insists, though their different status becomes apparent when he drops “six still-blind kittens” in a mail bag and batters the bag “against a tree, again and again and again.”

What might have been an anecdote about cruelty and interspecies friction becomes instead a longer story of degradation, ethical disorientation, and the obsessional shame that grows from the violence that Hrabal treats as a necessary.  In the shadow of the first killing—kittens, which seem to have some lesser dignity—cats  begin arriving from woods and wombs at a wild rate, and Hrabal takes to dispatching them.  After the first, elaborately described killing of kittens, Hrabal accidentally kills Blackie, his favorite, smothering her while she has a fit for which he blames himself.  He’d murdered most of her kittens, he thinks, so she lost her mind.  Soon after, “determined and deranged,” he ends up killing two pregnant cats (mail sack against a tree; axe to the head) whom he doesn’t spend much time considering.  By the book’s halfway point, the violence becomes hectic, and Hrabal’s manic tone, marked by gradually lengthening sentences that grow clotted with clauses, comes to seem oddly hilarious and zany, as if Ethel and Lucy at the chocolate factory decide to murder a clan of semi-feral cats.

At this moment, as in that scene from I Love Lucy, the madness at the heart of zaniness becomes central to All My Cats.  But where Sianne Ngai ties zaniness to the overwhelming demands of production—of course Lucy and Ethel can’t keep up during the hectic reign of Capital—zaniness reflects here the frantic character of Hrabal’s obsession, and the obsessional thinking that serves as the unreasonable, cognitive content of shame.  Much of the second half of All My Cats is filled with these obsessive ruminations, which are ultimately disarticulated from calculations of reality, just like a vision of an infant falling, somehow, unbidden from a balcony fails to correspond with what happens in the real world.  The madness of Hrabal’s shame becomes clear in the range of his ethical considerations and in his inability to find the edges of a guilt that grows endless, understandable only by appeal to analogs in art and history.  Like Steiner in Fellini’s Dolce Vita, he’s a parricide, and he’s Raskolnikov, too, and he’s a war criminal.  His guilt ties him to the massacre My Lai and “the massacre in Lebanon.” “What others did, I had done too.  It was I who led a young French photographer under fire down a side street in Lebanon, where she took my picture with five dead Falangists whose penises had been cut off”.   Self-indulgent as much as self-lacerating, the thinking is ultimately immobilizing, and he begins to spend his days traveling around Prague and its suburbs on public transit to distract himself, only to be reminded everywhere he goes that he’s a murderer. “And so my journeys around Prague on public transport became pointless” he notes, “because I began to see cats even in places they could not possibly have been.”  Guilt fills his mind with shame and his city with phantom cats.

As a meditation on ethics, Hrabal’s account falls flat, in part because he so perfectly captures the expansive reach of obsession.   Rather than offering an account of what we owe to animals and what we lose when we kill them, the book’s second half is more a case study in the wild scale of his self-recrimination.  The thoughts he wants not to have—thoughts of his guilt, and the thoughts of his love for his victims—emerge from a world that seems constantly to declare his guilt.  In one exemplary moment, he decides to trade in a car that reminds him of Autičko, one of the pregnant cats he’d murdered.  When he takes home a brown Ford Escort 13, he notices that its seats and ceiling are covered in the same “canvaslike material that mail bags are made of, that my mail bag, still lying folded and caked with blood in my woodshed, was made of.”  In Hrabal’s psychic fever, there’s nothing that refuses to accuse him.

The obsessional thinking on display in All My Cats ultimately becomes a cosmology characterized by paranoia. Thinking thoughts that seem alien leads Hrabal to the conclusion that:

Everything came at me with its sharp edges forward, and I felt then that the hand writing my destiny was not my hand. . . .  Everything seemed to have been prepared for me long ago, even things I believed I’d done of  my own volition, because when I thought about it, it seems as though it had been made ready to happen long ago, and all I had done was to slip the key into the door, which although it was opened by me alone, had also been prepared for me alone.

Again, the thinking here isn’t particularly convincing—his fatalism seems less an intellectual commitment than a convenience—but the vicissitudes of the sentence capture perfectly the mania that seems to be the real topic of the book’s second half.  Trying repeatedly to exculpate himself from his guilt, he ultimately offers himself too many outs for any to seem convincing: “everything is fate” fails to absolve him effectively from guilt.

The paranoia that grows from Hrabal’s obsessive rumination ultimately leads to magical thinking, and a longing for the secret that will unlock his guilt, allowing him peace and a chance to write.  Here the memoir’s tendency toward the tragicomic produces genuinely moving, genuinely funny scenes as he struggles to cure himself with a faith healer and by denouncing his dead cats as the murderers of songbirds.  (The faith healer claims that all Hrabal’s maladies are caused by an overabundance of the color brown in his life.)  Another moment of hope appears when he finds his wife burning the mail bag that he’d used to kill so many cats, thinking the fire a purgative that will free him from his guilt.  As with his public denunciation of his cats, this is one of the few moments that remind us of a larger context of paranoia for a Czech writer in 1983 living under Soviet rule.  In this case, his wife is worried they’ll be accused of robbing a mail truck if anyone finds them with a mail bag.

Where the most engaging and compelling parts of All My Cats are those moments where the character of guilt and shame become particularly clear, the conclusion grows flaccid with its attempt at pat closure.  As Hrabal and his wife drive, they’re sideswiped by a truck whose indifferent driver says he simply didn’t see them.  Here, Hrabal finds a story of caprice and violence that mirrors his own senseless violence against his cats, and he’s somehow redeemed according to an economic model of justice and penitence that allows him to pay for killing cats with a few broken ribs: “And in those twinges of pain, absolution for my sins, were as valuable to me as having a conviction struck from my criminal record.” The memoir’s exhilarating orbit around the abyss of shame is replaced here by a conclusion that renders too easily a story of guilt that’s less compelling than the endless circuits of culpability that came before, when one couldn’t simply pay for one’s sins.  Here, Hrabal’s religiosity moves against his most interesting insights.

Or maybe not.  In an epilogue, Hrabal recounts a walk he took a week after his car accident, still tender and limping around the woods near Kersko where he finds a swan frozen in the ice.  Trying to free the swan, first with his hands and then with a stick, he’s beaten by the surprisingly strong bird, and returns to find it dead the next day.  In this humbling and painful encounter, he finds the work of his dead cats, returning to him in an act of grace: “my dead cats had set the swan up for me” so he could learn that “I was guilty, just as I had been guilty all my life, even though I did not know why or what could have been the cause.”  In this vision of a fundamental guilt at the heart of existence, we might see a more compelling core to All My Cats, one that insists on an unfulfillable obligation to the world which leaves us forever compromised.  This ethos is different from the one opening All My Cats—the pragmatic spirit of “What will we do with all these cats?”—replacing management with care and with a recognition that no care can ever be enough, just as one can never take care of one’s own son well enough, leaving us stuck instead with a variety of unfulfillable obligations.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Griffin is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  His Untimely Deaths in Renaissance Drama was published by The University of Toronto Press in September, 2019.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 25th, 2020.