Friday, 20 November 2015

Book Review: The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23352450-the-guest-cat
Cats are independent creatures displaying elegance and aplomb worthy of the remote kin of lions. They certainly know what they want and how to get it! However, not all people welcome such willfulness, even less in a pet. While many humans respond to the particular charms of cats serving them not just voluntarily but with great pleasure, others hate them for their aloofness and pride as Colette skilfully showed in her novella from 1933 (»»» read my review of The Cat). Cat lovers will confirm that their mere presence suffices to improve the atmosphere of a place. With a cat around home feels warmer, more comfortable, and even more alive just as the first-person narrator of The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi learns day after day when Chibi begins to drop by at his house on her daily rambles and eventually makes it her second home.

Hiraide Takashi (平出 隆) was born in Moji (now a part of Kitakyūshū), Fukuoka, Japan, in November 1950. Already during his studies in Tōkyo, which he finished in 1976, he brought out first poetry collections and together with friends and his future wife he founded the publishing house 書紀書林 (Shoki shorin). Later he signed on as editor at an already established Japanese publishing house and stayed there until the late 1980s, while continuing to write and publish poetry, short stories, travel logs and essays. As from 1990 he became a professor of Poetry at Tama Art University in Tōkyo. His work is little known outside Japan, so apart from two acclaimed poetry collections titled For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (胡桃の戦意のために: 1982) and Postcards to Donald Evans (葉書でドナルド・エヴァンズに: 2001) only his bestselling novel The Guest Cat (猫の客: 2001) is available in English translation. Hiraide Takashi lives in Tōkyo with a cat and his wife. 

In autumn 1988 The Guest Cat, a small white cat with blotches the colour of India ink, shows up at the house in Tōkyo where the first-person narrator and his wife in their mid-thirties live. The family next door, whom they scarcely know, just adopted the stray cat and named her Chibi which means “little one” in Japanese, but she keeps roaming the neighbourhood and the narrator and his wife sometimes call her Tinkerbell because a small bell around her neck announces her visit. Since Chibi doesn’t belong to them, they are reluctant to get strongly attached to her and treat her like a guest.
“I opened the window and welcomed in the guest, accompanied by the winter sunrise, and the mood inside the house was restored. Chibi was our first New Year’s visitor. They call the visitors who go around to all the houses on New Year’s Day to wish everyone a happy new year ‘pilgrims’. Curiously enough, though she didn’t offer a prayer, when this pilgrim came in through the window she did seem to be familiar with at least one formal greeting – where the hands (or in this case the paws) are placed together on the floor to kneel before one’s host.” 
However, as time passes the two can’t help succumbing to the charms of Chibi who gradually becomes an important part of their daily life just like the elderly landlady and her husband in the old house on the other side of the fence. When the narrator gives up his secure job as an editor in the publishing business to try his luck as a full-time writer and to work at home like his wife, who is a proof-reader, he gets used to having Chibi around at always the same times of the day. Alas, one day she doesn’t turn up as usual…

The first-person narrator of The Guest Cat paints a tender and poetic picture of an old Tōkyō neighbourhood as it still existed in some places in the late 1980s. The cat called Chibi is its central motive and, at the same time, a symbol for the comfortable atmosphere and exceptional privacy that the inhabitants of the little crooked alleyway enjoyed despite living in close vicinity. On the psychological level the novella focuses on the growing affection of the narrator and his wife for the cat of their neighbours. Allowing Chibi to make their house her second home means a transgression of the invisible boundary separating them from her “owners”, i.e. a socially illicit intrusion into their family which becomes evident through their reaction to the narrator’s enquiry after Chibi. The western reader may rather see the couple’s concern for the cat (as well as for their elderly landlord and landlady next door) as a sign for their warm hearts. The tone of the novella is quiet as it should be and to a certain degree nostalgic. There are a few passages that interrupt its flow, digressions on Macchiavelli’s Florence and land surveying, for instance, that – at least to me – feel rather out of place and unnecessary. Moreover, the ending or actually the entire final third of the slim volume, left me with the impression that it belonged to a different story, to an independent sequel if you like, because the author almost loses his central motive from view and changes tempo and tone in a way that makes the read a lot less engaging or convincing. Overall, it’s an enchanting read, though.

Reading The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi was an immense pleasure for me, and not just because I love cats and I have been fascinated by the wealth of (old) Japanese culture for ages. At first sight, it’s just a simple story about a Tōkyō cat sneaking into the hearts of a middle-aged couple, but like a haiku it needs time to settle in the mind and to reveal its deeper layers. Maybe the author actually conceived the entire book as a prose poem – after all, he is most renowned as a poet in Japan. As a matter of fact, I could read it only in translation and so much of the original poetry may have got lost. Despite all, it's a read that I can only recommend.


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To know more »»» please read my post which includes the complete list of books for this challenge with the links to all my reviews already online.

2 comments:

  1. This does sound like an enchanting book overall. I think I'd truly enjoy it. Thank you for a charming review.

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    Replies
    1. My pleasure, Suko! It's really a nice book and I hope that you'll like it at least as much as I did.

      And thanks for your comment!

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