The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
There’s often a synchronicity with books, as I’ve found over the years with my reading; and there was another example recently when I stumbled across “The Guest Cat” in the local Oxfam just after reading Simon’s enthusiastic review here. It arrived, like the cat of the title, just at the right time and was the perfect read after I finished “The Leopard” (though I hadn’t noticed the cat connection till I started to compose this review!)
The author’s publishers tell us that he was “born in Moji, Kitakyushu in 1950. He has published numerous books of poetry as well as several books of genre-bending essays, including one on poetics and baseball. He has also written a novel, A Guest Cat; a biography of Meiji poet Irako Seihaku; and a travelogue that follows the traces of Kafka, Celan, and Benjamin in Berlin. His poetry book, Postcards to Donald Evans, is published by the Tibor de Nagy Foundation. Hiraide is a professor of Art Science and Poetics as well as a core member of the new Institute for Art Anthropology at Tama Art University. For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award for poetry.” So interestingly enough poetry is his main genre, and from what I’ve read his one novel is somewhat autobiographical.
The narrator, unsurprisingly, is an author; he and his wife are childless and live in a small rented cottage at the edge of an old estate in Tokyo. Both work at home and both seem a little detached from one another, as if things are not quite right with the marriage. But suddenly into their lives comes the cat; it actually lives with the people next door, notionally the pet of the young son. However, anyone who’s had any experience of the feline species will know that you never own them; they’re free spirits, going where they will and this cat is no different, choosing to split itself between the two houses whenever it feels like it.
The writer’s wife names it Chibi, and they take to feeding it when it visits and playing ball with it. The presence of the cat seems to bring them closer, give them an extra element to their live and marriage, and all goes well for a while. However, events intervene and it seems that the couple will not be able to stay in the cottage forever…
Of course, this is much, much more than a book about a visiting cat. It’s a rich portrait of the life the author and his wife are leading, the small everyday things that make up our daily routine, and the passing of time. In poetic prose, the book presents not only the story of the life of the central couple, but also those who surround them: the old couple who live in the big estate house, the neighbours who own the cat. Crucially, as Simon pointed out in his review, we see the marriage through the eyes of the author, and his wife is defined by her relationship with the cat rather than her husband.
But there’s more: Hiraide’s elegant and philosophical prose reflects the changes taking place in Japan, watching remnants of the past (mainly in the big house on the estate) disappearing and being replaced by modern trappings. Life moves on, and the couple must do so as well. Is there some kind of resolution at the end? Perhaps – there is a sense of progress, but whether this is good is not clear.
“The Guest Cat” has received all kinds of plaudits, all of which seem to me to be justified. It’s a lovely book, beautifully written, deceptively simple and very moving. Highly recommended by this dog lover! 🙂