Written by Hiro Arikawa and translated by Philip Gabriel
While writers writing about writers is certainly not exclusive to Japan (Stephen King has created at least three characters that I can think of who are authors themselves, and Grant Morrison has even written himself into his own comics), it is nonetheless a noticeable trend.
Japanese authors often enjoy discussing books and writing in their fiction. They enjoy writing, and they also enjoy cats (something we cat lovers can rejoice in).
Arikawa certainly isn’t the first Japanese author to celebrate the ways of the feline and follows in the footsteps of writers such as:
- Natsume Soseki – writer of I Am a Cat in 1906
- Takashi Hiraide – author of The Guest Cat in 2004
- Haruki Murakami – Whose novels often present cats as both mundane and supernatural. For example, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins with Toru Okada’s missing cat, named after his brother in-law and pseudo villain of the novel.
To add to this trend, Arikawa presents us with a modern Japanese drama about a man’s ordinary life as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary feline.
A Cat’s Predecessor
Beginning with more than a nod to I Am a Cat, Arikawa references the infamous opening line of Soseki’s satirical novel:
“I am a cat. As yet I have no name”.
With this The Travelling Cat Chronicles establishes itself immediately as both a product of its history and a representation of its own modern culture. By analysing the similarities and differences between them we can see how much Japanese culture has changed.
There are unavoidable links between these two novels. For example, part of I Am a Cat’s charm was its satire of the bourgeois behaviour of an upper middle-class school teacher from his pet’s perspective (even the Japanese title, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru, uses the most formal Japanese method of saying ‘I’, similar to the English ‘royal we’).
While The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not so much a satire, it emulates its predecessor by maintaining a cat’s-eye-view of human behaviour.
Where our nameless cat from the past would laugh with derision, Nana silently admires and derides in equal measure.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles presents its titular narrator as a simple, grounded male cat with only as much self-importance as we all assume our cats to have.
Rather than residing in the traditional home of an early 20th century teacher, our cat Nana is taken on a road trip with his owner to visit friends and see the transformative landscape of today’s Japan.
Seeing how this book was influenced by its predecessor, but reflective of a society entirely different, provides us with a delightful insight into how Japan has changed and what it now perceives itself to be.
Doing all of this through the eyes of a cat is never less than perfectly endearing.
A Man and His Cat
As a cat lover, travel enthusiast, and addict of Japanese literature, I cannot deny that this book spoke to me a little.
Seeing the lengths to which Nana’s owner and friend, Satoru, goes to throughout their travels to find the right person to take on ownership of Nana after he is (after five years of friendship) no longer able to continue doing so, is truly uplifting.
Half way through my time living in Shanghai, my partner and I rescued a kitten from the streets of Puxi, and once we had decided to leave Shanghai it was a mad dash to secure our kitten a passport. It took a lot of money, time, and stress, but we managed it, and little Milagro now lives happily with my parents in the English countryside.
I was prepared to do anything to ensure my cat’s safety and well-being, and the same conviction is plain to be seen in Satoru.
Both Nana and Satoru are simple characters in the most excellent of ways. They are both defined by their affection toward each other. That’s not to say we are not provided ample background for Satoru.
In fact, each friend that he is reunited with along his journey provides us a window into Satoru’s childhood. And a difficult childhood it certainly was.
But all of this serves to reinforce our own admiration for Satoru as a focussed, calm, and resolute young man.
The handful of chapters that comprise this charming novella are each dedicated to a friend of Satoru’s, and the weight of each friend’s burden is palpable. They every one of them carry a secret, an anchor, a ghost piggybacking on their shoulder.
And when we have spent just enough time with them to feel the chill of that ghost ourselves, we are disappeared along with Satoru. The taste of catharsis on our tongues as we grin with admiration at Satoru’s weightlessness.
How simply he is able to cast off the weight of his past and continue on in his silver van, his cat riding along beside him.
Nana’s personality is certainly the thing that shines brightest in this story. That he is a cat is never allowed to be forgotten. He boasts of the things he understands which humans overlook; he is honest and unashamed of his own bloated ego.
There’s comedy in this, but also veneration. He and Satoru share a clarity of mind. Neither character is ever anything less than themselves.
As Satoru’s friends battle with their demons and their depressions, Satoru and Nana, two characters who have both seen worse in their lives than any of the others, push forward with unfaltering momentum, free from stress and sorrow because they are never caught lying to themselves.
“Yoshimine, I don’t dislike you, so don’t think badly of me, okay? But I’m still not ready to leave that silver van for good.”
Despite the fact that both Nana and Satoru have darkness in their pasts, and are both aware that they are moving on into more dark times to come, they never falter and never deny anything. They know that there is no stopping the current they ride, and so on they drive.
This novella has been proving itself extremely popular in the West, and a Japanese production company has announced that a live-action adaptation is on the way.
All of this makes someone like me, with a bottomless, somewhat dank, pit of affection for Japanese literature, extremely happy.
On the surface, this is a sweet tale about the bond between a man and his pet, and Disney stories like these are a dime a dozen, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find a rich cultural well from which Arikawa has drawn, and a novel that does a simple and direct job of reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of modern Japan.
To do this in a way that is so accessible and so charming is an art in and of itself, and truly worthy of praise.
Purchase the novel with free worldwide delivery here.