A poetic little slip of a thing that holds the world, decades, entire lives, sorrows and beauties all as if in a pair of cupped hands.
The title is from Aramaic for “cat” and German for “butterfly,” a suggestion of the elusiveness of what Hoffmann (The Heart is Katmandu, 2001, etc.) tries to catch in his numbered chapters with their alphabetized paragraphs and subchapters—all very short, and all evoking in one way or another the experience of a boy growing up in Israel. His visions and memories of the world around him blend the boy’s (“the chain of my Raleigh bicycle slipped out of the gears, and I saw, through the thin metal rods called spokes, Rachel Sirotta among the myrtles”) and the grown man’s (“All sorts of women whose names were Hilda tossed in their sleep”), just as effortlessly as they move from loveliness (“Franz sends his hand out toward the west and almost by chance pulls down the sun”) to the horrible (“Ehud Kaplan . . . two years later wrapped himself up in cotton and burned”). The boy’s parents are here (“this woman Mathilda, the daughter of R. Avraham of Frankfurt, and . . . this slanting man Andreas, the son of Yitzhak . . .”), as are his grandfather (“Biblical air surrounded him in his bed with bronze bars . . . “), his schooling (“we fell from school to school and in each place the chairs became larger”), eccentricities (“The words ‘nimbus clouds’ disturb him. He does not agree with the word nimbus”), love (“When Monica took offer her dress, grasshoppers leapt in the grass”), and, always, the universal in the humble: “[He] turns the wheel of the Singer sewing machine and the wheel that he turns in turn turns another (which is connected to it by a leather strip) and these two wheels drive the great wheel within which move the stars.”
Beautiful, humane, priceless.