The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat

Title: The Gust Cat
Japanese Title: 猫の客 (Neko no kyaku)
Author: Hirade Takashi (平出 隆)
Translator: Eric Selland
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 140

The Guest Cat is set in 1988 in a residential neighborhood not too far away from Shinjuku Station, where the young narrator lives with his wife in a rented house located on the property of an old estate. The narrator’s house faces a narrow side street that he calls “Lightning Alley” because of its sharp, zig-zagging turns. A young housewife and her son live in a house next door that shares the shade of an ancient zelkova tree with the narrator’s house. A cat wanders into the housewife’s garden, and her son becomes enamored with the creature. Despite the protests of the woman living in the main house of the larger estate, who claims that the neighborhood cats ruin her garden and track dirt inside her house, the boy is allowed to keep the small white-mottled cat, which is promptly given the name Chibi, meaning “little one.”

The novel moves elliptically through several stories, gradually passing from point to point by way of meandering descriptions of the outside alley, the estate garden, and the narrator’s house in relation to the space and weather outside. The narrator has just worked up the courage to quit his job as a literary editor in order to pursue his own writing projects, but he only has enough money to help his wife maintain the household for about a year and a half. The narrator’s close friend dies from cancer, and the narrator worries about his own health as the Shōwa emperor grows ever weaker on his deathbed. The woman who owns the estate lives alone save for her aging husband, and she’s not too young herself; it’s uncertain what will happen to the property when she passes away, as land prices have risen exorbitantly in the bubble economy. Most importantly, Chibi develops new mannerisms and behaviors as she becomes more familiar with the narrator and his wife, who in turn grow and change through their interactions with her. The chapters are short (between three to six pages), each focusing less on any sort of ongoing plot and more on brief and vibrant observations on how the world appears differently when it’s centered around a cat instead of around other human beings.

The style of the novel is naturalistic in its minute attention to the detail of mundane life and reminds me of nothing so much as the short fiction of Shiga Naoya or the realistic fiction of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (of the kind collected in Mandarins), in which the discomfort caused by writer-narrator’s cold is made palpable by a catalog of what can only be noticed when one is confined to bed but cannot sleep, such as how a lizard crawls into a sliver of shade on the bedroom windowsill to escape the sun, or how Chibi admires herself in the mirror before leaping from the mirror stand onto the top shelf of the closet. As one imperial era transitions into another, the narrator and his wife experience major changes in their life, including a particularly traumatic event involving Chibi whose full impact does not become clear until the very last page of the story. Throughout everything, Hiraide focuses on brief moments and small sensory details such as the pleasant chilliness of a breeze or the pattern of light and shadow cast by the sun shining through tree leaves. While it is possible to glean several layers of meaning from each episode (one scene involving a praying mantis eating a locust particularly rewards analysis), it’s also well within the reader’s right to simply allow herself to be carried by the relaxed current of vivid impressions.

I’ve recently started reading about the Deep Ecology movement, which is above all concerned with animal rights, as well as how respect for these rights can shape the nature of the relationship between human and non-human animals. I’ve become a fan of Marc Bekoff’s blog Animal Emotions, which comments on current events and summarizes scientific research in order to build a case for a more inclusive and compassionate understanding of animal psychology. It’s been interesting to read Bekoff’s work alongside The Guest Cat, in which different characters betray vastly different attitudes towards animals through their interactions with Chibi. I was especially intrigued by the shifting tides of the narrator’s wife, who claims not to be a cat person:

As she finished the poor sparrow’s burial my wife repeated her earlier declaration – “I won’t hold Chibi,” she said. “It’s more gratifying to let animals do whatever they like.”

As April came around, gossamer-winged butterflies covered the garden, dancing just above its surface and coloring it a blue-gray. It seemed impossible for anyone walking in the garden to avoid stepping on them.

What’s interesting about animals, my wife explained, is that even though a cat may be a cat, in the end, each individual has its own character.

“For me, Chibi is a friend with whom I share an understanding, and who just happens to have taken on the form of a cat.”

Even though the narrator’s wife is attached to Chibi, she respects the cat’s autonomy and individual character, thus abstaining from direct interaction. The narrator, on the other hand, becomes fiercely jealous of the cat’s affections at a certain point, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Chibi’s primary caretaker, the housewife next door, also possesses strong emotions concerning the cat.

Although other readers may interpret this autobiographical novel differently, to me, the primary dramatic effect of The Guest Cat is not so much a result of its human characters and the socioeconomic environment they occupy, but rather a process arising from the ideas and emotions animals inspire in humans as they become attached to individual creatures and are refracted into the wider world.

The Guest Cat is equally capable of acting either as a quick pleasure read for cat lovers or as a starting point for applied literary ecocriticism. Either way, it’s a neat little book!

Hear the Wind Sing

Title: Hear the Wind Sing
Japanese Title: 風の歌を聴け (Kaze no uta o kike)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1979 (in Japanese); 1987 (in translation)
Publisher: Kodansha English Library (講談社英語文庫)
Pages: 130 (plus 15 pages of translation notes)

I love A Wild Sheep Chase. The narrator’s daily life in Tokyo, the narrator’s sojourn in Hokkaido, the mystery of the sheep, and the philosophical musings on genius and individuality all come together into an interesting and compelling story. There’s this one weird bit, though, after the narrator leaves Tokyo but before he reaches Sapporo. This is the chapter describing the narrator’s visit to a place called J’s Bar. He doesn’t visit J’s Bar in real time; rather, he remembers having visited it in the past. J’s Bar, we learn, is where he and a character called “the Rat” used to drink when they were younger. I always felt that there was something about the narrator’s relationship to the Rat and J’s Bar that Murakami wasn’t telling us. As a result, this short, atemporal section connecting Tokyo and Hokkaido felt disjointed and out of place. Perhaps the reason it felt this way to me is because I had never read Murakami’s earlier novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. A Wild Sheep Chase is part of a tetralogy (which is concluded by Dance Dance Dance), so it only makes sense that I would be missing something by having started in the middle.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short I-novel in the style of Shiga Naoya, by which I mean that it involves a young man who wanders around aimlessly while thinking about how pointless his life is. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t worth reading, because it certainly is. There just isn’t much of a plot. The narrator, who is a college student majoring in biology, has returned from Tokyo to his hometown by the sea for the summer. He spends his days chilling out and his nights drinking in a small, run-down pub called J’s Bar. J is a middle-aged Chinese man who has befriended the narrator and his drinking buddy, a young college dropout nicknamed the Rat (“Nezumi”). One night, the narrator goes to the bathroom in J’s Bar and finds a young woman passed out on the floor. He gets her address from her purse, takes her home, puts her to bed, and then falls asleep in her apartment. The novel meanders between the sporadic interactions between the narrator and this woman, about whom neither the narrator nor the reader ever learns much before she disappears forever. Between these interactions, the narrator briefly reflects on his past romantic relationships and thinks about writing and literature, which he discusses with the Rat. The story is bookended at its beginning and end by sustained discussions of Derek Heartfield, a (fictitious) early twentieth-century writer of speculative fiction whose life and work, the narrator concludes, showed promise but ultimately went nowhere.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short novel, and it feels even shorter because of its frequent chapter breaks (about once every four or five pages) and frequent page breaks within chapters. There’s no real pattern to the narration, which includes conversations, reminiscences, literary speculation, song lyrics, and a bit of linear storytelling. Despite this lack of cohesion, everything flows together nicely, and the way that the main themes of the novel (such as the inability of any one person to really know any other person) are elliptically approached is fairly effective. The narrative voice contains far more humor than self-pity and keeps the reader moving easily through the novel. This narrative voice is broken a few times by the insertion of the voice of a radio rock station DJ, who has some of the best passages in the whole book. Such a fragmented narrative style effectively captures the experience of being a college student at home for the summer, moving through the days without a clear sense of purpose and half-heartedly wondering what the future will bring. There’s no grand mystery of the sort that forms the core of A Wild Sheep Chase, but the narrator is same amiable personality who sees the world through a perceptive yet detached perspective. If you can get your hands on this book (which is fairly easy to do at major Japanese bookstores or through Amazon.co.jp), it’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially for fans of Murakami’s writing style. Birnbaum’s translation notes at the end of the book are also a nice treat for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

The Story of a Single Woman

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Title: The Story of a Single Woman
Japanese Title: 或る一人の女の話
Author: Uno Chiyo (宇野千代)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 1992 (America); 1971 (Japan)
Pages: 132

Translator Rebecca Copeland aptly remarks in her introduction to The Story of a Single Woman that this novella “is the Uno Chiyo story, the story she has told countless times before in earlier works.” Indeed, this semi-confessional narrative of love pursued against overwhelming societal resistance runs not just through Uno’s oeuvre but through the work of pre-bubble women writers in general, at least as it is portrayed in anthologies like Noriko Mizuta Lippet and Kyoko Iriye Selden’s Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction. What is special about The Story of a Single Woman, however, is how Uno is able to recount her narrative in a dashing and gallant narrative voice with a minimum of self-pity.

The novella’s heroine, Kazue, is born and grows up in a tiny mountain village named Takamori (not to be confused with the city on the island of Kyūshū) in the early twentieth century. Her mother dies when she is still an infant, and her father, a sake brewer of some renown, quickly remarries himself to a young woman. Oddly enough, it is not Kazue’s stepmother who harasses the child, but rather her father, who controls the family with an iron will and forces everyone to behave with perfect decorum, even as his fortunes decline. At the behest of her father, Kazue is married off to one of her cousins while still in her early teens; but, because her young husband is not yet interested in girls, Kazue walks back home and never looks back. When her father dies, she takes a job as a teacher in a larger town. Perhaps her newfound independence goes to her head, because she soon starts visiting a young male teacher at his residence, unchaperoned. The malicious gossip created by this affair forces Kazue to resign her job. She retaliates by moving to the newly colonized state of Korea to launch a career as a journalist.

This is merely the start of Kazue’s amorous adventures. Throughout the novel, she is brave and cheerful and never defeated, even though her many lovers, who also must yield to the social constraints of the time, abandon her one after the other. Scattered throughout the account of Kazue’s attempts to establish herself as a serious author while following her heart from one relationship to the next are vivid and lovely descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside and cities that would be forever shattered by the Pacific War and its legacy.

Overall, The Story of a Single Woman is a quick and enjoyable read. Even though its tone carries the somewhat Victorian literary flavor of the immediate postwar period, it manages to be quite erotic at times. Very occasionally, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. What I found interesting about this book is that, although the real-life Uno Chiyo is infamous as a femme fatale, her literary avatar Kazue comes across mainly as a brave young woman who cannot help but suffer from her insistence on playing a man’s game in a man’s world. Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending (although I should add that it doesn’t have a sad ending, either), it is remarkably true to life and even a little uplifting in its honesty.