I first noticed Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (Picador, translated by Eric Selland) when Nicholas Lezard covered it in his column in the Guardian Review last year. Lezard is one of my favourite Guardian reviewers, perhaps because his tastes are so consistently in tune with my own. Consequently, when he reviews something or someone I’ve never heard of, I tend to take notice. And being a fond and foolish cat owner myself, I’m also always interested in literary works about cats. And, lastly, when I tweeted details of this review, people unexpectedly queued up to tell me how great The Guest Cat is.
And they are absolutely right.
The story is ostensibly simple. Sometime in the 1980s, the author and his wife are renting a small house set in the grounds of a larger house somewhere in Tokyo. They’ve reached a point in their lives where they are not sure where their lives are going – they think a lot about trying to buy a place of their own, but house prices are soaring. For now they’re happy where they are but at the same time they feel a sense of impermanence. The author, who works as an editor, is thinking about going freelance. Change is in the air.
The first part of this story is, if you like, about the road not taken. One day a small stray cat turns up but, because their lease theoretically forbids them to have pets, the author, who is anyway ambivalent about cats, about pets anyway, doesn’t act. Which is slightly problematic when he hears his landlady urging his neighbour, who has a small boy, to adopt the cat.
The cat is called Chibi (which means ‘little one’) and Hiraide describes her thus:
Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny (11).
Although she lives next door, Chibi visits the couple, first playing with Hiraide’s wife in the garden and then gradually coming into the house until she establishes a routine by which she spends periods of time with the Hiraides before vanishing to her ‘own’ house. She especially likes to see the son off to school each day.
As one might expect of a poet, Hiraide spends a good deal of time observing Chibi’s behaviour and his own in relation to her as his ambivalence towards cats in general turns into a fierce if perhaps inappropriate love for this little cat which does not belong to him. His wife feels similarly, and apparently keeps notebooks filled with day-to-day observations about Chibi.
But while this might by now be sounding rather twee, it’s far from that. Rather, Chibi’s regular appearances and her comforting presence provide moments of respite in a world that is becoming increasingly confusing. Alongside his change in employment, Hiraide notes personal health problems, the deaths of friends and mentors, the death of Emperor Hirohito, and changes in Tokyo itself as old houses are torn down and replaced by new and often ugly condominiums.
There is a moment when Hiraide writes about opening all the windows in his quirky old-fashioned cottage and watching as the wind courses through the house. On the one hand, he sees it as a moment of recognising that yes, this is where he lives right now, but at the same time this natural turbulence reflects on the turbulence in Hiraide’s own life.
The time comes when their landlords decide to move into sheltered housing, as the old man is becoming frail, and Hiraide finds himself becoming the de facto caretaker for the empty big house, as well as running errands for his landlords. All this he does with a good grace, taking them up on their invitation to use the big house. Gradually, he and his wife expand their territory, and become ever more acquainted with Chibi.
Then, unexpectedly, Chibi vanishes and later is found dead, provoking a fresh crisis in the Hiraides’ lives, not least in their well-intentioned attempts to comfort Chibi’s nominal owners, who now belatedly find that their cat has had a life about which they know nothing. The hostility of Chibi’s owners sends Hiraide off on a whole new train of thought as he attempts to reconcile his actions, and those of his wife, with the responses of the family next door. All this, and it has come time for the Hiraides to leave their little cottage – the house is sold and all is scheduled for demolition.
This is a slim volume, beautifully written, exquisitely observed. I’ve read it twice already and don’t doubt I shall read it many more times.