Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) produced some of the liveliest and most original fiction of the 20th century. “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” unfolds as a single-sentence monologue stuffed with entertaining digressions and frivolous antics. “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” depicts rural life in Bohemia through a series of madcap scenes, bizarre exchanges and beer-soaked tall tales. And “Harlequin’s Millions” follows residents in a home for the elderly as they reminisce and lose the plot.
Hrabal’s work brims with boisterous energy, unchecked mayhem, heady humor and above all, boundless charm. What is in short supply is grounded realism. “I exorcise reality,” he wrote in an introduction to one of his collections of stories. In its place we find comic absurdity.
A new, posthumous offering from this literary master shows Hrabal dispensing with his signature style and fully embracing reality — in places to an eye-watering extent. “All My Cats” is a memoir about the author’s relationship with his many feral cats and their effect on both his work and his sanity. Written in 1983, it has now been skillfully translated into English by Paul Wilson.
Hrabal tells how he divides his time between Prague and his weekend cottage, a country retreat where he writes and cares for five cats. They mean everything to him. When apart from them he feels “derailed and afraid and alone.” He worries about them being cold and hungry, or falling victim to hunters who earn bounties from every cat they kill and “cat-mongers” who profit from selling strays to research institutes. When reunited with his pets, Hrabal’s anxieties are allayed and all’s right with the world.
But soon his real troubles start. More cats move in. Some become pregnant. Kittens are born, “as tiny as transistor radio batteries.” As they multiply, Hrabal starts to panic. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks him, and after a while this much-repeated lament becomes an insistent refrain. Desperate measures are needed, a cruel-to-be-kind solution to a problem that is fast spiraling out of control. With grim determination, Hrabal fetches a canvas mailbag and a spade from the woodshed.
Readers expecting a sweet book about a cat lover pampering his feline friends will be shocked, perhaps horrified, by what Hrabal is forced to do again and again. But this is no gleefully sadistic account of kitten-killing. Instead it is a painful account of one man’s moral and mental collapse and the steps he takes to overcome his remorse, save his soul and get his life back on track.
In the last mesmerizing section, which deals with a heart-stopping struggle to rescue a swan trapped in ice, the narrative opens up to highlight the author’s bond with nature and his thoughts on his own mortality.
Searingly frank and strangely moving, “All My Cats” is a welcome addition to a singular body of work.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
All My Cats
By: Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.
Publisher: New Directions, 94 pages, $17.95.