May 24

JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘The Guest Cat’

"This is one of many books that you simply cannot judge by its cover. At only 140 pages, The Guest Cat touches on a surprising range of interesting topics and even if you’re not a cat person you can find a lot to like." (New Directions)

“This is one of many books that you simply cannot judge by its cover. At only 140 pages, The Guest Cat touches on a surprising range of interesting topics, and even if you’re not a cat person you can find a lot to like.” (New Directions)

By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at Ishikawa Prefecture’s New York office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.

Born in 1950, Takashi Hiraide is a talented writer across many fields including genre-bending essays and highly acclaimed poetry. His prose novel The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) blends both together to produce a beautiful piece that was released in English last January. It is a winner of Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award and is a best-seller in France. This is one of many books that you simply cannot judge by its cover. At only 140 pages, it touches on a surprising range of interesting topics and even if you are not a cat person, you can find a lot to like in the book. Even the narrator admits that he does not consider himself a cat lover:

“There are a few cat lovers among my close friends, and I have to admit that there have been moments when that look of excessive sweet affection oozing from around their eyes has left me feeling absolutely disgusted. Having devoted themselves to cats body and soul, they seemed at times utterly indifferent to shame. When I think about it now, rather than my not being a cat lover, it may simply have been that I feel a disconnect with people who were cat lovers. But more than anything, I’d simply never experienced having one around.”

That is not to say that Chibi, the titular guest cat, is not lovable; on the contrary, she charms everyone she meets, but do not pass on this small gem of a book thinking it is simply a chronicle of an owner doting on his pet. It is better considered a story of how a special cat brings light and life into the minds of the humans that are blessed to have her company.

The Guest Cat  is a short book divided up into small chapters that are part narrative and part meditative essays on nature, architecture, people, philosophies, and of course, animals, all of which are explored alongside clear and beautiful imagery. The narrator and his wife are a young married couple in their thirties living in a small apartment in Tokyo where they also conduct their work as editors. They are quite solitary and are also comfortable with the idea of having neither pets nor children. We come to first learn about their lives through a unique view from their apartment, a view through the knothole of a fence to a zigzagging street they call “Lightning Alley.” Before their neighbor’s new cat starts entering their apartment, and more importantly, bringing them out of their apartment, the couple’s lives give a sense of cold seclusion. However, after this lovely cat makes a second home in theirs, the narrative becomes a beautiful study of human emotions, from love and acceptance, to pain and despair:

“Chibi would climb her favorite tree…if you tossed a ping-pong ball to her she would jump quickly into action like a volleyball player on the attack, and complete a perfect spike….Next to the raised alcove in the parlor was a study in the grand old style. Moonlight passing through the paper screens bathed the room in a soft lunar glow. With her back to the source of light she [my wife] tossed the ping-pong ball to Chibi, who waited at her leisure on the built-in desk. Chibi batted it back and the game continued for so long my wife lost track….In the twilight of the big house, the white ball reflecting the moonlight could be seen dancing in the air, and its sound hitting the hard surface echoed through the halls. As she danced along with the small sphere Chibi was clothed in moonlight.”

The book is short but leaves long lasting impressions, and not just in its imagery, which is expansive, including picturesque evocations of light, buildings, and gardens brimming with life. But the story also leaves the reader with ideas and feelings that rattle in the mind like small gems that need time and care to clean and polish in order to truly understand. For example, is intimacy something that is worked for or should it come naturally? Is it possible to separate love and possessiveness? How do we mourn loss? How do we celebrate life? And furthermore, are our practices of celebrating and mourning fixated more in reality or in subjective interpretations of it? This book rests at a very unique intersection between poetry and philosophy, and as you read it you increasingly realize it is at times more essay than novel, and at others, more diary than essay.

If you are interested in Hiraide’s other work already translated in English, you can check out For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. Originally translated by Sawako Nakayasu, it contains excerpts translated by Selland, who deserves praise for preserving the book’s poetic and lyrical qualities. (For some of his original work in English, check out Arc Tangent.)

And if you are interested in other Japanese books featuring cats, consider Natsume Soseki’s satirical work I Am a Cat. Feel free to brighten everyone’s day and post [insert cute animal of your choice here] books, pictures, and videos in the comments!

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

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