The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Picador, 2014 (translated by Eric Selland)
Though a work of fiction, The Guest Cat reads more like creative non-fiction in its tone, and even its structure, with its unannounced switching of settings, often from one paragraph to another. And yet, it works. Chapters are presented as gathered glimpses of moments in time, as if the narrator is holding up a mirror to the simple, quotidian events in his life, focusing now here, now there, each glimpse more like a vague, half-formed intuition that this might, maybe, harbour some sense of meaning greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the narrator, an author, ever intimates that he is seeking some over-arching grand scheme which might impose a kind of meaningfulness upon his daily life. This author simply wants to do what he feels increasingly called to do, or rather to be – he wants to write; he wants to forgo all paid employment and devote his time and energy to the pursuit of expressing himself through the medium of word smithing. And so he does. His wife agrees to his proposal, not because she believes that it is either wise, or financially prudent, but because she doesn’t really wish to disagree with him. Or at least so the author tells us. We only ever get to know his wife through his eyes. She is an intermittent presence throughout this short novel, making her appearance for an occasional word painting, but more background shadowy figure than fully fleshed character. And yet the sense of her constantly hovers through these pages.
Still it is the Guest Cat herself, Chibi who is the main protagonist in this tale, the one who determines the unfolding sequence of events in the story. Chibi is the driver of the plot, the force field which determines what happens next. The narrator names her ‘Lightening Catcher’ to delineate her true, wild, cat-like nature, the mystery of her being. As well as the narrator, his wife and the cat which doesn’t belong to them, there is also a big house, and a small guest house (for rent); an old woman (the landlady) and an old man (her sick husband), and a miniature garden with a view of the neighbour’s zelkova tree, symbolically the centre of the tale. Most of the action takes place in this enclosed setting where the mood is “so isolated from its surrounding as to produce an almost otherworldly atmosphere” – p 106]
There is a kind of hushed reverence, a graced simplicity, trailing through the chapters of this book like the be-ribboned clouds which cast their long white fingers across the canvas of the blue sky in its opening lines. And though the tale is told in a straightforward linear fashion, yet this reader was left with a sense of spinning outwards, as if each new event, each tiny telling of an apparently innocuous occurrence, spiralled towards a mysterious unknowing, instilling a felt sense of something good and deep and even, perhaps, holy. We sense the writer laying his language down carefully, gently, upon the waiting page. There is no sense of hurry or urgency left hanging as a distraction, or as a dimly dark presence hovering like a dark shadow behind the words, beneath its quiet sense of being. The writer moves soundlessly through his pages, leaving little trace of his self behind. His book wanders, trailing through the seasons, like the be-ribboned clouds which greet our inner eye when we follow the poet-writer over to his window, when we peep from behind his shoulder and see what he sees.
The effect of this book on the psyche and emotions of the reader can only be truly and deeply experienced if the book is read more or less in a single sitting. But this is not hard to do. For one thing, the book itself is hardly more than a novella. For another, each time you place the book down, something inside, something instilled by the sense of the presence of the book, the story, the words, calls to the reader to pick it up again. What happens next, the reader wishes to know, though the chapters in and of themselves seem to be little more than descriptions of the scene viewed through the eyes of the narrator. And yet, underneath the stream of events, the turning of the seasons, something is happening, changing, unfolding. Ultimately this little novel is less about a cat than the subtle events in our lives which gradually change and alter our perceptions. “When the cat stopped coming, it seemed as if the garden had changed into something dreary and drab.” [p. 95]
There are some wonderful scenes described within these pages, scenes which beg to be marked and read and re-read, over and over again. One such scene, reminiscent of a similar blustery billowing in The Great Gatsy, is painted on pages 22 and 23. The narrator opens a window in his little house
“and the wind came in from the south like an avalanche of snow. Then, one after the other, I opened all the other windows in the house. The window over the kitchen sink of course, and the glass lattice windows in the two bedrooms on the east side, followed by the bay window in the dining room and then the bathroom window. The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through.”
These few sentences capture the essence of this gorgeous tale, which weaves it magic through the suggestively lyrical and poetic undertones, laid lightly on top of ordinary, daily occurrences, nothing forced or over-stated; on the contrary everything here is muted and quiet, easily missed if read in a rush. This book whispers its story, and the only possible way to hear what it is telling us, is by quieting our souls and listening with the ears of our heart. Then we can listen with the narrator when he first happened upon the guesthouse, noticing the calm atmosphere of the district:
“The first time we entered the silence, a strange feeling of peace came upon me, as if a loving hand had placed itself gently upon my chest.” [p.18]
But perhaps, more than anything else, it is the fragility of humanity heard in this cry from the narrator’s heart which reaches out and resonates with the reader’s heart, this deep longing, an utterly intolerable yearning, which tears through the fabric of every reader’s soul, laying bare the losses each one of us has lived through.
“But not only that, just by moving away, we also would be joining sides with those who forget – this was simply unbearable.” [p. 114]
And then there is the gift of the final pages of this beautiful and mesmerizing novel, but to share them with you now would be to give too much away. Anyway, to fully appreciate the gifts the author bestows it is necessary first to set out upon your own journey of reading. Bit by bit, detail by detail, the writer brings his readers to a new understanding of what it means to remember. Read this novel and experience the peace and tranquillity, as well as the pain, which only a true poet can bestow.