Appropriately for a culture famous in later years for its lively animated films, talking animals were not slow to make themselves heard in Czech. Indeed, one of the first cats to find a voice expresses itself in that very language â in Smil FlaĆĄkaâs NovĂĄ rada, written in the late 14th century. In this allegorical poem, the young king (the lion of Bohemia, symbolizing VĂĄclav IV), summons a ânew councilâ of birds and beasts to advise him how best to rule. Each of them offers advice appropriate to its natural qualities, including a wily and subtle cat who suggests that every king requires a cunning spy capable of seeing by night and keeping a watchful eye out for the criminals and murderers who perform their nefarious deeds under the cover of darkness â and who could be better suited to this important role than the cat?
Wood engraving by AntonĂn Strnadl from Smil FlaĆĄka z Pardubic, NovĂĄ rada, translated into modern Czech by FrantiĆĄek Vrba (Prague, 1940) Cup.502.aa.12
Although this urbane courtier is a native Bohemian cat, many of the most appealing and characterful examples in the long tradition of Czech illustration were created to accompany works by foreign authors. Among these, one of the most delightful is a very French cat depicted by FrantiĆĄek TichĂœ on the frontispiece of a Czech translation of Marcel AymĂ©âs Les Contes du chat perchĂ©, draped over the branch of an apple tree with a languid and knowing air.
A few years earlier, Marie MajerovĂĄ had published VeselĂĄ kniha zviĆĂĄtek (âThe Jolly Book of Animalsâ), a collection of childrenâs stories based on English material. However, the cats depicted by Josef Lada, famous for his illustrations to The Good Soldier Ć vejk, bear a decidedly Czech stamp in the scene where a small boy named Jenda, in the middle of a dull afternoon when his brother and sister are suffering from colds and disinclined to play, finds himself transported to the magical Kingdom of Cats and becomes its king.
Jenda becomes king of the Kingdom of Cats. Illustration by Josef Ladaâs from Marie MajerovĂĄ, VeselĂĄ kniha zviĆĂĄtek (Prague, 1933) X.998/3707
Like their English counterparts, where kittens lose their mittens and cats play fiddles and go to London to visit the Queen, Czech nursery-rhymes frequently feature cats in a starring role:
The cat took a husband,
The dog took a bride;
As groomsman our gelding
Limped at his side;
With him, as the bridesmaid,
There walked our old mare;
She gave him a nosegay
And kerchief to wear.
(This translation Â© Susan Reynolds 2019.)
Ladaâs illustration for Karel JaromĂr Erbenâs NĂĄrodnĂ ĆĂkadla (âNational Nursery-Rhymesâ) shows a demure white cat in wreath and veil stepping out on her bridegroomâs arm while the farm animals look on in admiration. In another picture, while their father and mother tuck into bowls of porridge and peas on top of the stove, three kittens sit in a row beneath them wearing their best bows and expressions of marked annoyance at being given nothing to eat. With a few skilful strokes Lada captures their disgruntled air as adroitly as he does the dumb insolence of Ć vejk and the unmistakably Czech features of the peasants who people his almanacs.
Dressed in bridal finery, advising the king of beasts or conferring royal honours on their newly-crowned human sovereign, all these cats are creatures of the imagination with very human features. One of the most charming portrayals of a cat in modern Czech literature, however, is taken directly from life. To English-speaking readers Karel Äapek may be most familiar as the creator of robots in his play R.U.R., but he was also a keen gardener and a great animal-lover (like another famous Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, whose country home was a haven for cats). In his 1932 collection Devatero PohĂĄdek a jeĆĄtÄ jedna od Josefa Äapka jako pĆĂvaĆŸek (âNine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measureâ; 5th ed. 1946 at X.990/4608), he too conjures up a world in which cats enjoy adventures equal to any of those previously described.
It is in a later work, though, that Äapek reveals his true understanding of animals â MÄl jsem psa a koÄku (Prague, 1939; YF.2005.a.31524). Like the earlier book, it was translated into English within a short time by Robert and Marie Weatherall and became popular among British readers because of its dry, understated humour and affectionate depiction of the authorâs pets. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann, the creator of Kater Murr, and his wife, Karel and Olga Äapek were childless, and it is tempting to assume that for them too animals represented surrogate children. Yet there is nothing mawkish about the ironic amusement with which Äapek describes the behaviour of his dog and cat, to which he brings the same detached, quizzical approach that he applies to the English, the Spanish or the Dutch in his various travel writings. Whether chronicling the wooing of his pet by caterwauling tomcats or the antics of the resulting litter of kittens, Äapekâs light and laconic style is perfectly partnered by that of his brother Josefâs drawings.
Illustrations by Josef Äapek to Karel Äapek, I Had a Dog and a Cat (London, 1940) 7294.de.34
For all their baffling and sometimes maddening idiosyncrasies, it is clear that for Äapek his feline friends were the catâs whiskers â and who are we to disagree?
Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.