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The Guest Cat (New Directions)

(This was my first post for Media Snobs, and it is now included in its entirety on my blog for preservation)

Genre: Drama
Author: Takashi Hiraide
Publisher: New Directions
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 4 / 5 – Exceptional

A modest novel suffused with melancholy, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (2001; ably translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland for 2014), requires a boatload of introspection to be properly enjoyed. Those expecting a plot should abandon the idea. Takashi Hiraide is normally a poet and this is so far his sole work of prose fiction. Its preoccupations are with daily perceptions, the fleeting nature of meaningful events and the visits and absence of a cat.

A young couple have retreated to an obscure and verdant alley in Tokyo. They work from home as copyeditors, even though there’s less money in it. They have no pets or children and know none of their alley neighbours…but they do get to know a neighbour’s cat and, over the course of time, become extremely fond of her:

 Eating and sleeping as much as she liked, circulating freely between locales, it seemed as if the boundary between the two households had itself come into question. Even the words we used to talk about Chibi had become a mass of confusion: was her coming to our house a return – a homecoming – or was it the other way around? Was home really over there? The whole situation seemed to be in flux. Once, when we had been out for the day, we returned to find Chibi there in the dim light of the entrance to welcome us, seated properly, feet together on the raised wooden floor as if she were a young girl who had been left to care for the house while we were away.
 “See, I told you. She’s our girl.”
 …or so my wife said, though she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honored guest bestowing her presence upon us.

Hiraide gracefully captures the aloof warmth of a cat’s presence. Personal note: I’ve got six cats and in the course of reading and note-taking for this review I managed to interact with almost all of them. Hiraide understands the mystery of the cat, particularly the one you don’t know too well. And the nameless couple at the heart of this story have never known any cats well.

They come to their leafy residence in the mid-80s estranged from the outside world and “completely exhausted”. Relatively little info is given on the pair and yet it is impossible not to feel sympathy toward them. Hiraide’s emotional dissection of the things which cause woe and the things which soothe it is incredibly precise and affecting. The nature of the malaise they suffer from at the start is also never explained, an intriguing solution to the possible banality of the premise.

Among the blurbs for The Guest Cat is one by Nobel-winner Kenzaburo Oe and his praise should serve as fair warning that this small book is a bit of a downer (enough so that I had to put it down briefly). Much Japanese literature of the 20th Century looks into the human void and reports back terror – Oe, Mishima, Tanizaki, Dazai, et cetera, with more recent writers like Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino seeming to carry on the tradition. In a way, Hiraide is also looking into the void but there are no psychos, no sex or self-destruction used to illustrate the emptiness. The Guest Cat is a gentle and somber work where tragedy comes with the absence of beautiful and cherished things, embodied in something as simple as an old house waiting for demolition.

To the non-architectural, detailed descriptions of buildings tend to bog down the narrative. The first few chapters are rather hard going for a reader trying to latch on to the couple and Chibi the cat. Don’t worry though; the book is only 140 pages and it’s the rare chapter that takes more than 5. Eric Selland’s inclusion of Translator’s Notes also offers some assistance with the culture shock aspect (explaining about tatami mats and sundry). Hiraide’s writing is quite lovely and once he’s moved beyond the blueprint of the house nothing else is a problem. His precision becomes rewarding. For instance, having described every window in their home, the narrator goes on to depict what happens when he throws them all open and the wind pours in “like an avalanche of snow”:

The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through. I stared in blank amazement at the courtyard for drying clothes where the clouds in the sky ran quickly past. Two slender branches of mistletoe, which had been entwined there, snapped in the wind and fell. I looked up to see the neighbor’s great zelkova tree, gradually encroaching on our side of the fence, blasted by the wind, causing both branches and trunk to sway violently. Through the slanted skylight, a few rays of sun would pierce for just a moment and then vanish, only to return, combined with buds blown in from the plum tree – everything timed to the rhythm of illumination and concealment.

In becoming attached to Chibi, the narrator begins to spend more of his time outdoors watching her. He takes up gardening work for his ailing landlady, befriending a dragonfly with the help of a garden hose and seems to open up to life a little more; all the while knowing this idyllic sanctuary is on its last legs. “I continued to work in the garden for relaxation during writing breaks, cleaning reeds out of the pond, removing cobwebs from between rocks and trees, and pulling weeds, until the vast space with its folds and depth was transformed….I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that within a year the house and its garden would most likely be put up for sale. And yet despite that knowledge, I had begun acting as if I was a live-in groundskeeper, setting up house in a corner of the premises, large enough to be a public park.”

The normal thing to do would be to play this for a domino effect, where the couple’s love for the cat expands to a whole circle of human acquaintances. The Guest Cat thoroughly questions such a result without succumbing to pessimism. It’s not bitter and it’s not at all challenging to read, combining a graceful purpose with a stylistically pleasing brevity. It won Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award and, interestingly, became a bestseller in France. Thoughtful cat lovers should enjoy it, as would anyone interested in Japanese literature.

 

Takashi Hiraide

Incidentally, stray cats feature heavily in the work and you can see pictures of Japan’s feline population here.

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Bits and pieces of the ironical (but thoroughly upbeat!) music I would want on the stereo at an actual party.

Here were videos of songs by Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Since the “MS Originals” posts are now a memorial, this is no longer appropriate and I remove them. My surrounding comments are left intact.

Bought some ice cream and a bar of chocolate in town. I made it past the editors! I got published! I didn’t get fired! It’s my 50th blog post!! Hell yeah, I’m celebrating now!

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