‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’’ is one of a series of related stories in Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City , that detail the experiences of a poor worker named Marcovaldo and his family over the course of five years. Each of the twenty stories is set during one season of those five years, with ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’’ representing autumn of the fifth year—the second-to-last story in the collection. According to the Author’s Note at the beginning of the collection, ‘‘These stories take place in an industrial city of northern Italy,’’ though a specific city is never named.
The tale opens with a description of how the progressively urban environment of the city has, over the years, changed the world of cats who exist within it. Long before, the varied structures and spaces of the city allowed cats to roam, explore, and share the same living space as people. As the city expanded upward, it became a uniform mass of tall buildings that not only lacked the character it once had, but also kept cats from roaming as freely as they once did. The narrator notes that ‘‘the cat of a recent litter seeks in vain the itinerary of its fathers, the point from which to make the soft leap from balustrade to cornice to drainpipe, or for the quick climb on the roof-tiles.’’
This new environment has forced cats to adapt to a new world in which they exist alongside but separate from people. The narrator refers to this as ‘‘a negative city, that consists of empty slices between wall and wall, of the minimal distances ordained by the building regulations between two constructions.’’ Although most people of the city know nothing of this cat world, Marcovaldo discovers it during a lunch break at the warehouse where he works. While everyone else has gone home, he remains behind to eat the small snack he has brought, and encounters a tabby wearing a blue ribbon that appears to live nearby. After eating, Marcovaldo follows the cat on a stroll through the neighborhood.
Though he had once thought there were few cats in the area, he sees new ones every time he follows his new friend. He feels as if he is getting a unique glimpse into the world of cats—though he often finds himself abandoned by them in some dead-end space, limited either by his agility or because he is not a true member of cat society. However, he also discovers parts of the human world as seen through the eyes of a cat.
One restaurant in particular, the Biarritz, catches his fancy. He finds it while following the blue-ribboned tabby and peers down into the establishment through one of the open windows just beneath its domed roof. It is an upscale and elegant place with live violin music, impeccably dressed waiters, and fine silver dishware. The tabby appears to want Marcovaldo to follow along the roof toward the kitchen of the restaurant, but Marcovaldo is taken with the extravagant dining room. He also becomes fixated upon a fish tank that sits directly below his window; in the tank, huge trout swim, waiting to be handpicked by customers for their meal. He hatches a plan to bring a fishing pole to the window, lower the line into the tank, and somehow catch one of the fish for himself. Marcovaldo reasons to himself, ‘‘I couldn’t be accused of theft; at worst, of fishing in an unauthorized place.’’
He goes home for his fishing gear and returns to the window. He successfully lowers the line, complete with a worm-baited hook, without being noticed by the people in the restaurant. One of the trout takes the bait, and Marcovaldo draws it up out of the tank, ‘‘over the laid tables and the trolleys of hors d’oeuvres, over the blue flames of the creˆ pes Suzette, until it vanished into the heavens of the transom.’’ He yanks the fish through the window and it lands on the ground behind him. Before he can get to it, the tabby pounces on the fish and runs off; Marcovaldo steps on the fishing pole to stop it, but the line pulls off the rod, and the cat disappears with his prize.
However, the fishing line trails behind it, and Marcovaldo quickly follows the line to track down the cat. The line leads him ‘‘into more and more cattish places,’’ but he manages to keep the end of the line just in sight. After following it along the sidewalk, he finally throws himself to the ground and manages to grab the end of the line. He follows the line and arrives at a rusty gate that leads to a garden. There is a small building at the opposite end. It is a tiny patch of nature, with two trees and a pond, surrounded by tall buildings on each side. In the garden, Marcovaldo discovers all types of cats: ‘‘tiger cats, black cats, white cats, calico cats, tabbies, angoras, Persians, house cats and stray cats, perfumed cats and mangy cats.’’ He realizes that this garden is the ‘‘heart of the cats’ realm.’’
Marcovaldo sees that his trout is stuck in a tree, where the line has become tangled and the cats cannot reach it. He struggles to free it but carefully keeps the fish from dropping down to the waiting cats below. Suddenly the cats are distracted by a rain of fish parts—including heads, tails, and organs—from over the tops of the garden walls. Not yet sure of the meaning of this, but wanting to take advantage of the distraction, Marcovaldo attempts to draw in the line with his trout. However, as he does, two hands appear from a window of the small house at the back of the garden; one hand cuts the fishing line with a pair of scissors, while the other catches the fish in a pan.
Marcovaldo is approached by a group of mostly older women, and suddenly the rain of fish-parts is explained: they are cat-lovers who gather daily to provide their leftovers to the cats of the garden. Marcovaldo asks why the cats gather there, and a woman tells him that this is the only place they have left. Other women chime in, explaining that the garden is the last remaining sanctuary in the city not just for the cats, but also for birds and frogs. He asks who owns the garden and its tiny villa, and he is told that it belongs to a noblewoman called the Marchesa always remains hidden inside.
According to people on the street, the woman has been offered huge sums of money for the property—which is the last undeveloped piece of land in the downtown area—but refuses to sell. She has also been threatened, but to no avail. Some people believe the old woman keeps the home so that the cats and other animals will still have a place of their own. Others think she hates the cats and tries to drive them away. ‘‘Marcovaldo realized that with regard to the old Marchesa opinions were sharply divided: some saw her as an angelic being, others as an egoist and a miser.’’
Two groups form at the garden entrance, arguing over whether or not the garden should be torn down to make room for a new skyscraper. Those in favor of tearing it down complain that the garden produces mosquitoes and attracts mice in addition to the cats and birds. Unsure what to say, Marcovaldo blurts out that the old woman in the villa stole his trout. The two arguing factions convince him to knock on her door and ask why she did it. He does, and finds that she is already frying the fish. He explains the situation and tells her that one of the cats stole the fish from him. She interrupts him, expressing her hatred for the cats. She tells him that the cats keep her prisoner there by blocking and scratching her if she tries to leave. They also prevent her from selling the place, destroying contracts before she can sign them. They even scared away a lawyer, she says. As she continues with her complaints, Marcovaldo remembers that he must still return to work, and he walks away.
As winter gets underway, the cats mostly vanish from the garden. However, one winter night, they reappear, causing a great disturbance with their meows. The neighbors investigate the commotion and discover that the old woman who owns the garden villa has died. By spring, the garden is torn up and workers begin construction on a new skyscraper. However, their efforts are constantly hampered by the meddling of countless cats, birds, and frogs still fighting to preserve their small remaining piece of the city.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Italo Calvino, Published by Gale Group, 2010