Year 5 / Book 3: All My Cats

3) All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal

When the team were all putting up what they liked and didn’t like ahead of Secret Santa in the office, I put ‘Likes: books, cats’, and so here we are: a book about cats. Although not  quite as fluffy as one might be expecting. The only previous book I’d read by Bohumil Hrabal was Closely Observed Trains, which is a slim and oddly compelling tale about a young man in a railway station in the war (who uses fantasy to escape the reality that surrounds him). This book was written much later (1983) and is non-fiction, although it is prone to similar flights of fantasy – it describes Hrabal’s relationship with the various (stray and feral) cats that came to live at his country house in Kersko.

I should say early on that if you were thinking this would be a fuzzy, heartwarming tale of how a man falls in love with the furry creatures around him, then you are in for a bit of a shock. Indeed, if vivid descriptions of cats being killed in a wide variety of ways are not something you can cope with, then this book is 100% *not* for you. Because the book becomes more about a man deteriorating mentally and not being able to cope either with the proliferation of cats (and how it affects his life) nor with the actions he takes to halt that proliferation. It also increasingly becomes about his capacity (or lack of) to cope with dreams, visions, and hauntings from those he has killed.

It’s one of the strangest books I’ve read in a long time – there are some genuinely beautiful and touching moments (which my cat Geoff would appreciate), and an excellently written epilogue which is more insightful in ten pages than many grand epic works that run to hundreds of pages; but it is also repetitive and meandering, and goes off at regular tangents, which have different levels of satisfactory return for the reader; one also has the feeling of living in Hrabal’s mind as he battles with depression and writer’s block, and at times I didn’t think I was going to get out.

So not one for animal lovers; but if you want a quick dive into the world of an Eastern European writer on the verge of a breakdown as he copes with fame, an inability to write and his own feelings of guilt and evil, then you have found the book for you.

Score: 6/10

BUY IT NOW:  All My Cats (Penguin Modern Classics)

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