Book review: The Guest Cat - a gentle meditation on cats, life and change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

The Guest Cat
by Takashi Hiraide

Some books make unlikely bestsellers. This is a gentle, thoughtful and subtly profound work, utterly without pretension or pyrotechnics, by a Japanese poet in his 60s, and - I am almost inclined to say "and yet" - The Guest Cat has been a runaway success in France and America; it's also been catching on in the rest of the world.

Could its success be something to do with cats? The Japanese, after all, are not the only people who are fond of felines. The cat of the title is one of those with which many of us are familiar: the cat belongs to someone else, but comes to our home for more food and to take a few extra naps.

In these situations an ambiguity arises: to whom does the cat really belong, or is there a gradation of ownership? And what is the effect on your relationship with the neighbour who owns it? You can imagine how these questions can become particularly important in a society as formalised as Japan.

The story is set in the late 1980s, and we are given every reason to believe that it is autobiographical. Yet this does not diminish or compromise the delicate artistry of its telling. In fact, it brings its skill into sharp relief.

A married couple, one a writer, the other a proof-reader, rent a small house in the corner of a garden containing a larger property. The arrangement is temporary, and set against a backdrop of rising house prices and economic insecurity.

Indeed, the whole book is, in its way, a meditation on change. There are references to the Fortuna of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (specifically, the periodic flooding of the Arno in Florence, and Niccolò Machiavelli's use of this as a metaphor in The Prince). The garden has been carefully planted so that different flowers come into bloom at different times of the year; we notice the tadpoles becoming froglets, and a dragonfly, copulating with its mate while flying, in the shape of "a distorted heart". Friends and acquaintances age, or get ill, and die. Meanwhile, the couple - childless and with the narrator not especially fond of cats to begin with - find themselves adopted by the animal. And then … but you should find out for yourselves.

"Looking back on it now," says the narrator, "I'd say one's 30s 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."

This is one of the most declarative moments of the book, which generally contains only that which we expect to find in the narrative of our own unremarkable lives: the work, the silences between couples, the search for somewhere to live, the passage of time.

The key word is "unaware" - not that the book goes out of its way to point out, showily, the significance of its own events. It's the kind of work that makes you ask of its author: "How on earth did he do that?" as you dab your eyes and pause to look wistfully into the distance. (The translation, by Eric Selland, has an American flavour, but as Hiraide mentions baseball a couple of times this shouldn't be a problem.)

And at the end, you find yourself confronted with a mystery - a small mystery, perhaps, but one that will certainly give you pause to think. You will want to read The Guest Cat more than once, so you notice more details - seeing as you can't do this with life.

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