The cat Xavi (“After the footballer”) is out of sight at the moment, and the three-colored cat, which “has a different name from everyone who speaks to it”, is on the road elsewhere. “For us, cats are not cuddly animals. They have free access and can come and go as they want. Sometimes they want to be petted and sometimes they don’t – and that’s how it should be,” explains Michael Köhlmeier. The title character of his new novel is a tomcat: “Matou”.
Read for 3 weeks
During his visit to APA on this glorious summer day, the author seems very relaxed on the garden terrace of his house in Hohenems. The writing on his book, from which he will read for the first time tomorrow, Thursday, as part of the quotes in Vienna’s Museumsquartier, and which will go on sale a few days later, he had already completed in late spring 2020. “You had to give the editing a certain amount of time because it was so thick,” he says. 960 pages thick to be precise. For the audio book, Köhlmeier “read every day” for three weeks: “The biggest obstacle was the growling of the stomach. The microphones are so fine. It just doesn’t work!” too runny, not too firm, not too sweet. “
His Matou has seven lives. According to local tradition, Anglo-Saxon cats that his Central European tomcat meets even have nine lives. “I was happy that there were only seven,” laughs the 71-year-old. “Seen in this way, the novel is not fat at all. That’s only 150 pages per life. Even my wife Monika Helfer needs more per book.” Köhlmeier, on the other hand, is a narrator who only comes into true form in the epic breadth. His previous magnum opus, “Abendland”, published in 2007, comprised 780 pages.
“Exceptional Slow Reader”
He describes himself as an “exceptional slow reader. I am a bit dyslexic, and I really celebrate reading novels. I would have always wished that I could read faster.” His hangover Matou, on the other hand, is a phenomenon. He needs 20 minutes to read “Anna Karenina”, one lunch is enough for the collected works of Immanuel Kant. Correct: Matou can read. And write. And speaking. The first to whom he speaks is his master Camille Desmoulins in Paris in 1794. He might have been shocked to death by this if the guillotine had not separated his head from his body seconds later anyway.
This is exactly where the initial idea of his novel was, reports Köhlmeier: “I saw a steel engraving from the guillotine during the French Revolution and was amazed that there were so many cats and dogs hanging around under it. Then I found out about it They found out that they were licking the blood there. Then I thought it would be interesting to describe the French Revolution from a completely different point of view. Something like that is of course a satirical design. Right away there was also the idea that cats have seven lives – and that the second one inevitably has to be at ETA Hoffmann, because he wrote the ‘life views of the cat Murr.’ During a walk in Döbling I saw a little house on the edge of the vineyards with a nice old woman in front of it before me like an idyll that I thought: I’ll grant him that, there he should calmly write his memoirs in his seventh life. “
Story from a hangover point of view
What is the cat memoir about? “Matou himself says everything that can be said about the novel: It is the story of the Enlightenment from the French Revolution to today from the point of view of a cat.” In this “basically simple construction”, in which he has again built his alter ego, the writer Sebastian Lukasser (“An alter ego is not an autobiographical figure, you don’t have to tell the truth about everything”) Matou also on the cat island Hydra: “I thought to myself, I would do a chapter in which people do not play a role and let him found a cat republic – or rather a cat dictatorship, because he has studied his Machiavelli thoroughly.” In the Congo, Matou is later reborn as a leopard and the bloody colonial history is combined with African storytelling. “There are tons of fairy tales and myths about leopards there, more than about lions. I don’t think the lion is much of a character. The leopard is much more active and actually more beautiful.”
The fact that the cat Matou can turn into an African big cat is due to Köhlmeier’s special construction of the cat beyond, which he calls “the made-away”. There wishes are fulfilled as far as possible, there you can watch trailers of possible next lives in the “large catalog” like on a modern computer screen and then make your personal rebirth choice. “I wanted it to be as factual as possible and with as little religious crush as possible. It’s a sober affair, like a transfer station. If we also had such decision-making aids in the afterlife, I would find it good. Once a life as a leopard lead, could irritate me, “laughs the author.
How Köhlmeier would want to live
If humans also had seven lives and choices in the past – what would be other options that Köhlmeier would most like to fulfill? Not an easy question, he admits. “I would undoubtedly like to spend a life in the Athens of Pericles, of course not as a slave, but as a peripatetic with the philosophers in the academy. But you have to imagine everyday life at that time according to today’s standards – whether that would be so desirable? I would probably prefer to skip the Middle Ages. If it had to be, then I would most likely wish for a monastery, like Adson von Melk in ‘The Name of the Rose.’ The 19th century would of course be very beautiful, Weimar, for example, wouldn’t only in Goethe’s time, also later. In the 19th century I would like to belong to the educational level or to be a manufacturer – but then you are a pig, that would not be good either. If you are not one of the privileged, it’s really only in the Now bearable. “
One trick that Köhlmeier uses in “Matou” is the possibility of discussing major philosophical questions from a different perspective. “When the cat asks great questions of humanity anew, it is never embarrassing. He approaches it very differently than a human being and on top of that has everything he has read ready to hand.” The reading lists that the well-read tomcat regularly gives his seventh master, the student Daniel, are actually enormous. How much of it did the author use while writing? “I got something out of all of these books. Above all, I caught up with linguistics. I studied that in Marburg at the time, but at that time the emphasis was solely on Noam Chomsky’s generative transformation grammar.”
Andy Warhol as master
Chomsky lets Köhlmeier meet Matou in one of his favorite scenes – in a prominent group invited by Andy Warhol – ostensibly around the question “Is God a metaphor?” to discuss and test a new drug, in reality, to test their reaction to a talking hangover. “It was clear to me very early on that I would take Andy Warhol as one of his masters, because I knew he had 18 cats. He said Sam to all of them except for one, which he kept after he got two dogs and got rid of the cats. Warhol literally knew everyone, his diary is name dropping at the highest level. “
Matou also met another celebrity in Prague in 1912: the monkey Rotpeter from Kafka’s story “A Report for an Academy”. “For me, the entire Prague chapter is under the patronage of Franz Kafka,” says the author. As a counter-figure to Red Peter, who wants to become a human, he has set the wife of Matous’ Prague master, who wants to become an animal – and as such is shot by a hunter in the forest. “This whole chapter is about suicide – a collective suicide as a picture for the First World War.”
Fully packed novel
Michael Köhlmeier packed a lot into his novel: human and animal, historical, philosophical and literary. Many poems are scattered over the individual chapters of the book. “Many poems are from me and many are not from me. And there are also poems in which the beginning is from someone else and is then continued by me. Messrs. Eichendorff and Chamisso, whom I hold dear, are of course represented there. But me I have not given exact sources. It is not a non-fiction book. “
One might think that he also delivers that: At the same time as “Matou”, a volume from Köhlmeier appears in the “Mind Games” series by Droschl Verlag: “About Success”. If you have successfully completed such a mammoth novel, you might think it’s easy to write about it. “I already had the feeling that I had achieved something with the novel, but there is a big difference between this feeling and being able to write about it. The fact is: I didn’t make it. I wanted to write an essay, But I didn’t come up with anything that four others couldn’t write in the same way. So I came up with a time-honored literary form, which, however, does not have a good reputation, namely the anecdote. So I’ve written anecdotes that revolve around the topic of success. “
Talking cats do not appear in this collection of anecdotes, but – at least according to Plutarch’s observation – sheep talking with swallows. What, the philosopher mused, would they talk about? “Probably about the kids.”