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The cats, Bobkowski and Me

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Lola & Teofil

For me, to stroke a cat basking in the sun, its pale green gaze behind thick eyelashes turning all colors of the rainbow at the edges, is a true pleasure.

August 25, 1940

It is rewarding to scan Notebooks for Bobkowski’s observations on cats. During his bike journey through the south of France, and later, when he is riding around the streets of Paris, Bobkowski has a particularly attentive eye for spotting cats. He notes them sitting stoically in shops’ vitrines and bistros. He appreciates their dignified, gentlemanly walk when crossing the street, unmoved by people’s panic under allied bombs. Sometimes he seems to devote more attention to cat’s whiskers shining in the sun, their eyes full of blue-green reflections of the Parisian sky, than to German soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysée or the lack of the butter so important for French cuisine. Cats’ mysterious presence adds glitter to the sunlight itself and helps to mitigate all worries. In Bobkowski’s prose, the feline apparitions are as important as the human. They show up in the glimpses of reminiscences or in impromptu digressions in the middle of erudite remarques on the past or present times.

Bobkowski enjoys also observing inconsistency in people’s behavior towards cats, noting how they are old ladies’ delight. What a pleasure first to accuse the cat of being naughty and then surreptitiously to offer him a juicy morsel of beef, wartime scarcity be damned. Cats deserve it, of course, and so there is no shame in buying their love and their purring acceptance.

At eleven the bistro closes. The gray-faired patronne shuffles to the railing outside and keeps calling: Toto, Toto, pussy, pussy…” But 'Toto”, a big, black tom, has vanished. Carried away by the stifling night. In the morning he will turn up under the door of the icebox, sniffing the meat inside. The old lady will inform him: “Méchant Toto, la viande n’est pas pour toi-oh non”! and looking around to be sure the other lady, her sister, doesn’t notice, will cut off a piece of meat and hide “Toto'' along with his spoils, behind the counter. Then she will yell in a shrill voice: Du café pour monsieur!

August 28, 1940

Teofil & Zuzanna

When an uncertain reality weighs like a heavy monster on Bobkowski’s chest, it's the visit of a big black tomcat that delivers a moment of perfect bliss.

I set out for the search of water. There was none anywhere. At least in the garden of a deserted villa I found a well. I squeezed through the gate and along with the water brought a cat. A glutton of petting, the cat immediately made himself at home in the tent. Once again, we eat by moonlight. The cat very obligingly fell asleep beside me.

12 September 1940

When normalcy is what we crave, a brief encounter with a cat can offer us respite in the time of crisis – be it during the war or pandemic. As during this past year and half, when our faithful domestic animals have accompanied us in our lockdowns, offering invaluable company and lessons in expressive communication. I witnessed a moving scene, when my neighbor was in despair, preparing to take her husband to the hospital filled to the brim with Covid patients. I saw her beloved cat approaching, putting the paws on her leg and looking at her like a compassionate friend, the green cat's eyes saying: “I am with you, don’t you dare to worry!”

Cats ignored the strict rules of new work-from-home status quo and forced us to broaden the boundaries of flexibility and tolerance. They walked across our desks during Zoom classes, blocked the screen with their hairy tails and signaled that it was the time to share a joke with our students or to just pause and smile.

Our roaming outdoor/indoor cats cross freely the boundaries of our properties and pay visits, uninvited, to a new neighbor. (By the way, the properties that in fact we might be renting from them!) We search for them, call our feline free-spirits back home, and the next thing we know - we get invited for a drink. Our cats have made us a new friend.

Once our polite housecat, pursued by a vicious stray cat, clambered up a tree to escape. When the aggressor moved on, she found herself higher than she expected, and couldn't find her way down. High drama. By then, not two but four neighboring families met around the tree, united by the cat’s wailing. Our plea for help from the fire brigade fell flat: "We don't dispatch for such cases." Tension and worry mounted until Lola came down, just as she went up: on her own, after four long hours of her performance up, “in the heights.” The next day we all met again to celebrate with food and laughter the happy ending of Lola's adventure. That’s what cats do for us.

A black cat was walking slowly along the walls, sitting down from time to time and blinking his eyes. Little rainbow sparks lit up the tips of his whiskers, his fur shone. I stroked him and I thought that when the war ended, I would have many cats. He arched his spine, bumped his head against my hand, and went off to sit a few feet farther away. The cat’s stroll displayed all the pleasures of sunshine.

April 3, 1943

I don’t know if Bobkowski got “many cats” after the war, when he had moved from France to live in Guatemala. I hope he did. When cats are among us, they make bad times much better.

A.B. in Guatemala City (Museum of Literature, Warsaw)

A.B. in Guatemala City (Museum of Literature, Warsaw)

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