After reaching the heights of bestsellerdom in both France and its native Japan, poet Takashi Hiraide’s tantalising novella; The Guest Cat, has finally been translated into English for us all, courtesy of Eric Selland. Having become rather a fan of beautifully written Japanese fiction over the past couple of years (see Yoko Ogawa, whose latest story collection; Revenge, I simply can’t wait to read) and being a life-long cat aficionado, this slim volume; the tale of an oddball couple who unwittingly befriend the neighbour’s cat, warmed the cockles on the basis of the blurb alone.
Our unnamed, thirty-something couple live in a rented cottage somewhere in the vast suburbs of Tokyo. Working as copyeditors from their quirky little home, their quiet, somewhat mundane lifestyle is suddenly transformed with the appearance of the neighbour’s cat in their back garden. Delicate, lithe and charming, this beguiling feline quickly forges a place for herself in the hearts of the pair, who nickname her ‘Tinkerbell’, and await her arrival at their door anxiously everyday, with the animal soon warming and transforming their everyday lives into something truly special, something all animal lovers and pet owners will no doubt identify with.
The rented cottage, though not their own, is a special place. Light and airy, all tatami mats and sliding doors, it has a strange, small window in the kitchen that projects a reversed image of people in the adjacent alleyway onto the wall for contemplation. The garden is sumptuous and wild, the creatures within it characterful and both project a calm, healing atmosphere which becomes so very valuable to the pair.
It may seem easy to dismiss this sentimental story as the domain of the cat-lover only. In reality, this is a novella whose scope spans far beyond that of feline appreciation and plumbs the depths of human emotion for more. With great simplicity and delicacy, Hiraide subtly explores the human capacity for love, our need to connect with the living world around us and the deep grief that can occur when that connection is seemingly lost forever.
Although I found Selland’s translation a little jarring and intrusively ‘translated’ at times, this slight clumsiness added to the lovely oddness that attracts me to a lot of Japanese fiction, perhaps reflecting a certain way of living and thinking that is alien to me in all my Englishness. This isn’t a book for plot-lovers but one for simple beauty. That the author is an acclaimed poet will come as no surprise and it is this poetry that allows us to suppress our logic and our assumption that this couple clearly have some serious issues that, rather than addressing, they instead choose to lavish upon their ‘guest’. Disquieting, metaphorical stuff indeed.