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Thomas Hürlimann: Der große Kater [The Big Cat]

To understand this novel, you need to have an idea of how the Swiss Bundesrat (Federal Council works. Unlike most other countries, Switzerland does not have a head of government/state elected for a term of four years or more but, rather, a council of seven elected officials chosen by the main parties, on the basis of an agreed formula. The President and Vice President of the Council are elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Parliament) but only hold office for one year, when new elections take place. The President is not, however, the head of state or government but rather the first among equals in the Council. However, s/he has two extra powers – the right to take decisions in emergency without recourse to the Council and acts as head of state in dealings with foreign governments. Hürlimann’s father had been president of the Council and naturally his portrayal of a Federal Council president caused a certain amount of controversy.

The hero of this novel is the eponymous big cat. We never learn his real name as he is either referred to by his title – Federal President – or by his nickname of Kater (which means tom cat). He got his nickname as a child. His father was a fisherman and, one day, returning from fishing, his son met him at the dock. Cats tried to steal the fish and the father, in his annoyance, picked up a cat and dashed it against the ground. The cat was badly injured but not killed. Kater rescued the cat, took it home and looked it after it and it recovered. However, much is made of the nickname and Kater’s cat-like qualities, such as his cunning. He is currently the President of the Federal Council. The novel tells of two days in his life, the official visit of the Spanish King and Queen to Switzerland. Two people have particular importance in his life, Pfiff and his wife, Marie. We never learn if Pfiff is his real name or a nickname (it means whistle but can also mean something like flair or the the knack of doing something, both of which could be apposite for Pfiff.) Kater first met Pfiff at Catholic boarding school and they have remained friends, despite the fact that Marie was Pfiff’s girlfriend and she left Pfiff (saying that he was going on to great things and did not need her help) for Kater. Pfiff may well have another reason to resent Kater. Her was seemingly making a good political career. However, the then president felt Pfiff was, despite his ability to make speeches, too artificial and insincere, and selected Kater as the person to support in his political career rather than Pfiff. Pfiff is now the government security chief and is responsible for organisation and safety during the Spanish royal visit.

Kater and Marie have been married for a long time but seem to be slightly estranged. They have two sons but the youngest son is dying of cancer in a nearby clinic. The novel starts with Kater in his office having a catnap before the state dinner. Much of his time in the novel is spent musing over his past life – how he met Pfiff and their interaction and how he met Marie being of particular concern. Early on he learns that Pfiff has changed the itinerary of the royal visit for the next day. The original plan is that the men would go and watch the Swiss Air Force up in the mountains – the King is a keen flyer – while the ladies would go and visit a spinning factory. Pfiff, however, is concerned that the factory employs a lot of Spanish women, quite a few of whom are Basque and that represents a danger for the Queen. As a result, because the Queen used to be a nurse, he has switched the ladies programme to the Bossi Clinic. Unfortunately, that is where Kater and Marie’s son is. It looks like a political stunt and Kater is sure that Marie will see it as such and be upset. He is right.

Much of the novel concerns the fall-out from this decision – Marie’s reaction, which causes political embarrassment, Kater’s often clumsy attempts to repair the damage and Kater’s concern for his marriage, his son and the political situation. All of this is mixed in with his thoughts about his past and how events in the past come to influence what is happening now. What Hürlimann does particularly well is to show the inner workings of a political mind, coupled with the workings of a man who is a husband, father and friend, as well as to discuss some of the ideas arising out of political decision-making, not least of which is the conflict between political ambition and personal life. There is, for example, an excellent discussion on the nature of God and good and evil, and other ideas about politics, religion and the real world are worked in. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how much Hürlimann discussed these issues with his father and how much Kater is based on his father. In any case, this is a work of fiction and works very well as such. But why is it only available in Bulgarian and Dutch?

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Ammann, Zurich
No English translation
Also published in Bulgarian and Dutch