A Review of Hiro Arikawa’s “The Travelling Cat Chronicles”
Postcards from Japan
Two things that go well together are books about cats and Japanese literature. And that’s what you get with the international bestseller The Travelling Cat Chronicles, which came out in Japan some time ago but is now getting a Canadian release, coinciding with the release of a live action movie of the same name. This book is a strange, but beguiling one — one that cat lovers are bound to lap up. The story — and while I say story, the book is fairly plotless — is about a Japanese man named Satoru who discovers an injured stray cat and takes him on as his own. However, events turn out that Satoru is no longer able to take care of the kitty, named Nana after the Japanese number seven, and so he hits up friends and family to take care of the cat. We don’t learn why Satoru is no longer able to take care of Nana until near the end of the book, and the reason is a heart-wrenching and sentimental one. Expect to be keeping a box of Kleenex at the ready when you read this.
While this is an account of the love between humans and their feline companions, this is also a book about Japan. Satoru and Nana take off in a silver-coloured van all over the Japanese countryside hoping that one of the people in his life might be able to take the cat in, so you have visits to the seaside, Mount Fuji, Sapporo, and most other points. This is, thus, a book about the love the Japanese author has for her homeland, as much as it is a sopping wet love letter to, well, cats. (And dogs, too.) If you’re looking for a tale (or tail?) suffused with all sorts of cultural detail, this book will more than whet your appetite for a visit to the country of the rising sun. It doesn’t hurt that the book name-checks My Neighbor Totoro, because this book is very cartoon-like.
The reason it plays like an anime in words is that the narration is mostly from the cat’s point-of-view. The author (or perhaps the translator) has a kind of “aw, shucks” kind of writing style, so you really see the world from the eyes of a cat. However, since the book is also largely backstory of Satoru growing up, those parts of the book are not told from Nana’s eyes, but rather the third person. It’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of being a satisfying literary device, but once you get used to it, you do kind of warm up to it. In a sense, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a bildungsroman, the story of a man getting to be a man. You get a sense of how loving Satoru is as a human being, and why he would be so invested in a cat as a companion. (He did have a cat while growing up, but had to give it away.)
This book is an easy, enjoyable read that doesn’t take too long to finish. It’s certainly very different from the types of books I would ordinarily have in my literary diet (and I say this as a rabid consumer of Haruki Murakami’s work). In a sense, it’s closer to manga than anything else because it has an element of personification in creating a character who only sees a world from the level of someone’s ankles. In fact, whether or not you like the book is going to hinge on the fact that the cat is able to see, feel and think as humans do, and can understand humans. (Not to say that cats can’t understand humans, but I don’t have quasi-conversations with my cat, Dot, as Satoru and Nana have.) That’s not to say that the book is perfect.
The novel does get a few embarrassing kitty facts wrong. For one thing, Nana is able to watch TV and understand what he sees. In reality, cats can’t watch television because the lines being drawn on the screen are too fast for their eyes, or something like that. Nana is also able to understand that there are variations on the color red, when, in fact, cats see things in a different way than humans — almost kind of a monochrome. I’m not a vet, of course, but if even I could understand these things, I wonder why the author Hiro Arikawa didn’t strive for more realism in her story. However, that brings me full circle to the anime and manga comment — things don’t usually make much sense in Japanese comics and animation, so certain liberties are taken.
I’m on the fence about this book. I liked it, but thought it could have been better with maybe letting the cat narrate the entire novel. Nana is also prone to making witty remarks — the book is funny — but I thought the tone could have been a tad more serious given what we learn about Satoru’s fate. And, yes, the book may bring a tear to your eye, but the effect is more of one that’s mawkish than perhaps sincere. Still, you can certainly see why this book is so popular and why it even inspired a movie. In fact, I’m now really curious about the movie because I’m wondering how this book would work as a live-action film with no animation in it. How would it handle things from the viewpoint of the cat? In any event, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a partially successful endeavour. I don’t despair having wasted my time with it, but I could see room for improvement. In any event, it all goes to show that when you combine cats with Japanese literature, special things do happen, warts and all. In my case, I just hugged my cat a little tighter. If you have one, maybe you will do the same too after reading the novel. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is that kind of book — despite its flaws, it’s a very special one indeed. Glad to have experienced it. I’m sure you will too.
Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles was published by Random House Canada / Viking on October 23, 2018.
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