Raymond Roussel’s Cat Battle


“The child carried in his arms, on his shoulders, and even on top of his head a collection of young cats, each wearing a red or green ribbon around its neck.

With the edge of his heel, he drew two lines in the sand about forty to sixty feet apart, parallel to the side occupied by the Stock Exchange. The cats, jumping spontaneously to the ground, posted themselves in two equal camps behind these conventional boundaries and lined up facing each other, all the green ribbons on one side and all the red on the other.

At a sign from Marius, the graceful felines began a frolicsome game of Prisoner’s Base.

To begin, one of the greens ran up to the red camp and three times, with the tips of its barely unsheathed claws, tapped the paw that one of its adversaries extended; at the last tap it swiftly ran away, chased close behind by the red, which tried to catch it.

At that moment, another green ran after the pursuer, which, forced to turn back, was soon aided by one of its partners; the latter lit upon the second green, which was forced to flee in turn.

The same maneuver was repeated several times, until the moment when a red, managing to tag a green with its paw, let out a victorious meow.

The match halted, and the green prisoner, entering enemy territory, took three steps toward its camp, then stood stock still. The cat that had earned the honor of the capture went to the greens‘ camp and began anew, by sharply rapping three times on a tendered paw, freely offered. 

At that point, the alternating pursuits resumed with gusto, culminating in the capture of a red, which obediently stopped dead before the enemy camp.

Fast-paced and captivating, the game went on without any infractions of the rules. The prisoners, in two symmetrical and lengthening rows, sometimes saw their number decrease when a player’s skillful tag was able to deliver one of its teammates. Such alert runners, if they reached the opposing camp unhindered, became untouchable during their stay over the line they’d crossed in glory.

Finally, the group of green prisoners grew so large that Marius imperiously decreed the red team the victors. 

The cats, without a moment’s delay, went back to the child and scampered up his body, taking the places they’d had on arrival.”

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, 1910. Trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011.

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