Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat
Published 2014 by Picador. Translated by Eric Selland, 140p
I find so much profundity, simplicity and emotion every time I read modern Japanese literature. There is cruelty, desire, the need of building identity, problematic sexuality but the Japanese know how to extract the lyricism and transform torments into rich, healing experiences. Among my favourites: Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata.
I don’t appreciate the cats’ behavior, the duplicity and indifference they show but I respect diversity in nature and I am fascinated with a strong personality – human or animal. I first hesitated to read Hiraide’s book seeing the cats’ eyes glowing on the cover but as the reviews on the back presented it as elegant and intelligent and as it had been written by a Japanese writer, I decided to give it a chance. And it proved to be a good decision.
The Guest Cat is a poetic novel built around a feline but it transcends the love for a pet and subtly analyses the human need for connection, the basic principles of existence in nature and the unexpected turns of life. Japan is a strict and extremely formal society so when a cat belonging to the neighbours comes into the life and house of a married couple things are being reevaluated.
The story is set in the late ’80s and it is an unusual memoir. Both the writer and his wife were at that time freelancers, working from their home – a rented property that used to be a guesthouse. The transition from a stable job to a freelancing project, the financial insecurity, the death of a friend and the sudden appearance of the cat become signs of perpetual changes.
Looking back on it now, I’d say one’s thirties are a cruel age. At this point, I think of them as a time I whiled away unaware of the tide that can suddenly pull you out, beyond the shallows, into the sea of hardship, and even death.
The cat’s name was Chibi (little one); she was an ordinary looking cat yet very distant, cautious and temperamental.
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 see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.
Whenever the door to our small garden was left open, the cat was in the habit of peeking inside our house on its way to and from the main yard. The cat wasn’t a bit scared of humans. But it was cautious – just a natural part of its behavior perhaps – and would gaze at us quietly with its tail standing straight in the air, yet it would never come inside. If we tried to pick it up outside, it would quickly run away, and if we tried to force it to let us hold it, it would bite. Aware of the ever vigilant eye of the landlady, we made no real attempts to tame the cat.
Progressively, the cat would become more daring, entering the house, accepting food and resting on the sofa. The couple who seemed to have very little to say to each other is now animated by the intrusive animal. They rediscover the joy of watching the garden change during seasons, the emotions of waiting the cat to come, the excitement of the ritual of preparing Chibi’s own corner in the house.
Then something unexpected happens… something that makes us think about the meaning of life, of what we truly possess and of how we can nurture the desire to stay connected with the ones we love.