T.S. Eliot wrote, “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter.” So is the killing of them.
Hrabal (Mr. Kafka: And Other Tales From the Time of the Cult, 2015, etc.) states at the outset of this memoir—set in 1983, 14 years before his death at 82—that he loved cats. At his cottage in Kersko, an hour’s drive from Prague, he and his wife would open the door each morning, and “five grown cats would come charging into the kitchen and lap up two full bowls of milk.” Then, “meshugge Stunde, this crazy hour” would begin: cats racing around the cottage, fighting over slippers, and so on. Hrabal loved “our children” so much that he’d dry their paws when they came in from the rain. But his wife often asked, “what are we going to do with all those cats?” The author had an upsetting answer: When two of them had five kittens apiece, he concluded that he had to “be the executioner” and control the population. So he lured six kittens into a mailbag, took it to the woods, and beat them to death. He feels this act was justified, yet those kittens “would haunt me like a bad conscience whenever I’d lie awake toward morning, unable to sleep.” The feelings these killings engendered led him to write this thoughtful, if sometimes-repetitive, essay on the nature of guilt. Was he not like soldiers who killed innocents during wartime? Isn’t killing just the nature of life, he argues, as when his two tabbies caught and tortured a bunny until it died of terror? This alternately sweet and gruesome memoir challenges readers to think about their own actions and their own vulnerability. Cats serve as a metaphor for the many forms of guilt each person carries and the challenges of rationalizing problematic behavior. Indeed, what is one to do with all those cats?
A disturbing work that is deep but not inscrutable.