Cats vs porcupines: Gramsci’s view

Mistress Puss has departed for the hill, so it’s time for another beast to abuse, kill and eat the 5-6cm American (they’re actually African) cockroaches (Periplaneta americana) which are displacing their smaller German cousins here and which crawl upstairs every time the sewers flood or the bar downstairs runs out of tortilla. A farmer I know who calls his cats after Spanish highwaymen had promised me the pitch-black, month-old daughter of Serrallonga, but now I’m having second thoughts. Here’s part of a letter the imprisoned Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote to his son on 1932/2/22:

This is how I saw porcupines harvest apples: one autumn evening after dark, under a splendid bright moon, a friend of mine and I went into an orchard in which there were many apple trees, and hid behind a bush against the wind. All of a sudden the porcupines came out–five of them, two big ones and three small ones, and in Indian file moved towards the apples. They strolled about a bit first in the grass and then started working. Using their pretty little faces and legs, they rolled the apples the wind had shaken down into a small clearing and packed them close.

But it was clear that the apples lying around weren’t enough for them: the largest porcupine looked around, his nose in the air and, choosing a tree that bent low, climbed upward and was followed by his wife. They sat down on a heavily loaded branch and began to swing rhythmically. The branch began to sway ever more violently, as apple after apple fell to the ground. When they had pushed these others into the pile, all of the porcupines, big and little, rolled over and, stretching out over the fruit, impaled it on their rigid needles. The baby porcupines carried off only a few, while the mother and father succeeded in fastening on seven or eight each. As they were returning to their hole, we came out of our hiding place, caught them with a bag and took them home. I kept the father and the two baby porcupines many months, letting them run free in the courtyard. They used to hunt down all the tiny animals–cockroaches, cockchafers, and so on–and eat fruit and lettuce leaves. Fresh salad greens were their favorite dish. This enabled me to train them a little, so they stopped rolling up into balls when they spied people coming. But they were terribly afraid of dogs. I used to amuse myself by bringing live grass snakes to the courtyard to see the porcupines run them down. As soon as a porcupine caught sight of the snake, he’d hop up quickly on all four legs and get ready to attack. The snake would life up its head, stick its tongue out and hiss. The porcupine, after a faint yelp, would hold onto the snake with his front legs, bite the neck, then eat it piece by piece. (Letters from Prison, trans/ed Lynne Lawner)

Porcupines sound like the complete package, although you wouldn’t necessarily want them to get so domesticated that they slept on your head on cold nights.

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  1. Sorry you lost your cat. I’ve heard this story about hedgehogs, I mean impaling apples. I think it’s a rural legend though.

  2. Many of Gramsci’s other reminisciences are highly suspect – probably a sub-conscious means/end thing. Hairy Monster is still alive but has chosen to do business elsewhere, although not because of the apples.

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