It was the cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland, that first caught my eye. As a cat lover how could I resist this book? It is only short, 146 pages but it packs so much within those pages. And there was a lot that struck chords with me.
It is a story of how a cat made itself at home with a couple in their thirties who lived in a small rented house in a quiet part of Tokyo. The opening chapter describes the house and its position on a little alleyway the couple called ‘Lightning Alley’ because of its frequent sharp turns that one sees in drawings of lightning blots – or, I imagine, of the one on Harry Potter’s forehead. The alleyway followed a twisting path between the extensive grounds of an old estate and the place they were renting. It had originally been a guesthouse of the old estate, where their landlady lived. There was a rickety gate in a wooden fence, that was the landlady’s side entrance and the tenants’ front gate. And just beyond the gate was a knothole. I couldn’t quite visualise it but after reading it a few times I gave up trying to picture the scene and the optical illusion, like a camera obscura, the knothole projected on the small window in the corner of the kitchen.
I simply moved on to the story of the cat the narrator noticed in their garden. Their neighbours’ house to the east, which because of the twists and turns of Lightning Alley, was a distance away from them so that they rarely met face to face. But they could hear their neighbours’ little boy often playing where the alleyway turned sharply. One morning he announced his intention to keep a stray cat, Chibi, and they could hear the tinkling of the cat’s little bell. At first the cat was cautious and just peeked inside their little house but eventually Chibi spent a lot of time with the couple coming and going as she pleased.
Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.
These were her individual characteristics – slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs. (page 11)
So, I wondered why the picture of the cat on the cover that caught my eye was different. I think the picture on the cover of the audio book is more like Chibi:
There’s not really much more to say about the story, except that is a collection of fragments – of events that gradually change the couple’s lives. Chibi becomes a source of joy to them both and they began to see the beauty around them. There are passages about Chibi’s activities – her agility, her unexpected ways and playfulness.
Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from the prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived as if the house itself had dreamed this scene. (page 14)
Hiraide’s description of nature is detailed – the garden of the large house in particular. And I was struck by his description of two dragonflies, copulating while flying, in formation like a bracelet ‘in the shape of a distorted heart.’
But then something happens that changes their lives again. Change over the passage of time is one of the main themes in this book. Others are about nature and the nature of belonging – who does Chibi belong to, were her visits to their home actually a homecoming or was her home really with the neighbours? This was one of the chords that resonated with me because my in-laws once had a little white cat, Mitzi, who went to live with one of their neighbours. The neighbours clearly thought she didn’t belong to them because although = they fed her and she lived with them they brought the vet bill to my in-laws for them to pay it.
And so the changes continued. The ending which gave me much pause (pun not intended) for thought, is ambiguous, a mystery left hanging for you to decide for yourself what had happened – inevitable, maybe.
I was curious about this book – is it fact or fiction? So, I looked online and I came across this article, about a book signing/discussion organised by the Japan Foundation at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s venue on Cambridge Street in Manchester. Takashi Hiraide explained that some of the novel including the location and living quarters for instance, are based on fact, although the novel is a mixture of reality and fiction.
He also explained that the novel is a Japanese ‘I’ novel and pointed out the problems in translating it into English. For example whereas in Japanese personal pronouns (such as ‘I’, ‘he and ‘she’) are not necessary in a sentence, in English they are. As a result the narrator, who in the novel is meant to be a detached observer, in the English translation sometimes becomes a character in the story, which explains the detached feeling I had whilst reading it. I was also interested to find out that Hiraide is influenced by modern art and that he regards book covers as an art form in themselves. So, the cover that first attracted me to the book was his choice (I guess).
I loved this novella – so different from other books I’ve read. It’s one of my To-Be-Read books that has been hiding in my Kindle for five years, until I looked to see if I had any novellas in e-book form.