All My Cats
(New Directions, 2019)
In Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir All My Cats, the limits—of empathy, of understanding, of life and death—are distended. When Hrabal uses a canvas mailbag to cull his population of kittens, battering six of them against the base of a tree, do we identify with our protagonist? Do we despise him for his barbarity? A sense of repugnance, as it turns out, brings us closer to Hrabal. “One terrible eye was still open, staring at me, and in that horrifying eye I could see everything I loathed about myself.” Throughout his memoir, Hrabal attempts to chart and to pilot the intense disgust he feels not just for himself, but for a life that has, in his eyes, necessitated an outcome of violence.
The memoir, evocatively translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, begins with Hrabal’s wife voicing the critical—and repeated—question: “What are we going to do with all those cats?” Hrabal, who commuted by car between Prague and Kersko, where he kept his cats, shifts between past and future disquiet, the toothed gears of his thinking loud and plain. “Sometimes I felt so badly about those cats that I’d find myself wishing that both I and the cats could simply cease to exist.” Hunks of meat and bowls of milk sate his cats—and his conscience—merely temporarily. Despite Hrabal’s efforts, the “dread moment” is forever nearing: that time at which we must part from whom and what we love. Neither swathing his watch in a scarf nor sequestering it in the rear of a kitchen cupboard—“behind the coffee cups”—relieves him of this internal ticking sound. Time’s passage pummels Hrabal with the same intensity that he beats his cats.
The conundrum of how to survive—or how not to—circumscribes All My Cats. A fortuneteller compresses the years, squeezing them together and predicting Hrabal’s eventual fate.
One day she came to gather wild mushrooms, and before she left she told my fortune from a deck of cards. She 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 the river. She left behind that capacious handbag with the round green handles and never came back to pick it up because, in the meantime, she died.
This willow tree endures as a temptation. What saves Hrabal from himself is also what condemns him. “When I had regained some of my composure, my first thought was of Mařenka’s prophecy, but then I realized that were I to hang myself from my own willow tree by the brook, there would be no one to give food and drink to the cats.” Hrabal, like a man trapped in a box coated in cat hair, seeks ways not only to escape his circumstances, but to explain them.
And it was here, on public transit, that I came to understand why artists love suffering, and why poets and painters drink themselves into a stupor. It’s because they need to suffer in order to see more clearly, so that when they reach the bottom, they might catch a glimpse of what others do not see, something that touches the very essence of a human being and the world around him.
The quest for understanding is manifest not only in the fortuneteller and in the artist—not to mention in the reader—but in the pet owner, too. “Of all the cats, Blackie knew precisely what she meant to me. The fact that I loved her the most made her feel special, and I always found such understanding in her eyes that it alarmed me.”
How does Hrabal know what Blackie feels? How does Hrabal know that Blackie knows? While reading All My Cats, I thought of the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s influential paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel interrogates the subjective character of experience.
Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
The reader of All My Cats presumably wants to know what it is like for Hrabal to be Hrabal. Hrabal’s memoir succeeds—with frightening lucidity—in its capacity to narrow the gap that separates his experiences from our own. Cats sustain and haunt Hrabal. By imagining what the lives of his cats would be like without him—What is it like for Hrabal’s cats to be Hrabal’s cats without Hrabal?—he is coerced to go on: the threat of a miserable fate for his felines persuades him to keep living. Yes, Hrabal murders his cats. And he also lives for the life of them.
By the memoir’s end, Hrabal deems himself to be “saved.” The guilt that has tormented him—that leads him to spend whole days on the streetcars and buses of Prague in order to distract him from his cats, to sell his “kittenish little car” (a Renault 5) and to buy a new vehicle without any catlike features, to visit a parapsychologist who is a priest who has served 15 years in prison to cure him of his bad conscience—a terrible event ultimately nullifies the guilt that has regulated Hrabal. “The unhappy driver lay with me in the hospital and, just like me and like my wife, he could not turn back the clock a second, nor could he ever push it forward a second, so that what happened had to happen, as I told everyone, and it was magnificent.”