Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is a bomb wrapped in gift paper. The cute kitties on the cover, the innocuous title, and the synopsis, which mentions the book is about the writer tending to “a community of cats,” all contribute to making the book seem harmless. It’s not. Instead, the narrative is a brutal chronicle of a man’s descent into madness because of his cats. Bloody, violent, and dealing with themes like fear, suicidal thoughts, and mental illness, All My Cats is a wild, explosive read that should contain a warning: many cats were harmed in the making of this book.
In the autumn of 1965, Hrabal used the money from his very successful debut novel to buy a small cottage in the woods of Kersko, a town outside Prague. From the time he and his wife started using the cottage to the author’s death in 1997, he spent time between his home in Prague and the cottage in Kersko, where he wrote and shared his space with an ever-changing number of feral cats.
At the beginning, Hrabal’s relationship with the cats was normal, loving. He liked nothing more than sharing his and house with them and holding them up to his face. He gave them food and warm milk and lit up his wooden stove to keep them warm in winter. However, that relationship changed. He constantly worried about the felines. Also, as their number grew, they became an issue and Hrabal was frequently haunted by his wife recurring question: “What are we going to do with all those cats?”
The answer to that, sadly, was often bloody. Hrabal would put up with the cats and their unexpected litters until he couldn’t handle it anymore. When that happened, he killed them:
Then, as if in a trance, I opened the mail bag, which had a dark, caked stain along the seam, and put the remaining three kittens from the birdfeeder inside, along with the three from the woodshed, then I hurried into the woods and battered the contents of that mail bag against a tree, again and again and again.
The killings ruined him psychologically. He was haunted by the cats he’d killed and saw them come to him during the early morning. His guilt changed him and regularly made him stop writing. Hrabal believed in the supernatural and had once gone to see a parapsychologist named Marenka who predicted he would eventually hang himself from one of the branches of the willow tree outside his Kersko home. After killing cats, suicidal thoughts assailed him and he often thought about Nazi death camps while looking at the dead felines and remember Marenka’s words.
The house in the woods was supposed to be a place of peace where Hrabal could relax and write, but the cats turned it into the opposite of that. In fact, Hrabal had a difficult time writing and he and his wife rarely relaxed because they were constantly worried about opening the door and having a “deluge of cats” come “flooding into the hallway and the kitchen.” However, instead of giving them away or refusing to feed them, Harabal continued to care for the cats until their number would once again become a problem. When that happened, the cycle would repeat itself, taking a larger emotional and psychological toll each time. His writing about killing Auticko, one of his favorites, is harrowing:
I opened the bag and something happened that I wasn’t expecting: Auticko crawled into the mail bag on her own, and then what happened to her mother happened to her: I beat her to death against the trunk of a tree and then, to make certain, I crushed her skull with the blunt end of the axe and then, with a spade, I dug a hole next to her mother’s grave and dumped her into it and then, unable to stop myself, and that was my mistake, I looked at the dead cat with her beautiful little head resting between her white forepaws, those little socks, and I threw her a red geranium and when I’d covered her with earth I placed a heavy sandstone boulder on her grave, juts as I’d done with her mother and the other cats.
Hrabal’s mental breakdown worsens, but a car accident in which he breaks his ribs and ends up in the hospital makes him think he has atoned for killing the cats:
Everything that had once cried out within me now fell silent, the pressure of everything feline that had broken my heart and mind had somehow been vented, and I sat at home by the window like a liberated prisoner, capable of nothing more than staring into the heart of silence and tranquility.
All My Cats is not a book for cat lovers; it’s for those interested in the darkness that hides inside us and the way it can interact with whatever we decided to focus on.
All My Cats
by Bohumil Hrabal; translated by Paul Wilson
New Directions; 128 p.