Japan is well-known for its reverence of cats. Felines are regarded as a sign of good luck throughout the country, and it's a common occurrence to run into a shrine devoted to this wonderful furry animal when travelling around the country.
This devotion has trickled into Japanese literature. There are more than a few plays, cultural tales and books where cats play a central role. As a self-confession crazy cat lady, a voracious reader and a bit of a Japanophile, I've of course read more than a few of these novels. And what always strikes me is how the authors so often use cats to depict the intricacies of human life, love and emotion.
Here are a few of my favourites, and one I can't wait to get reading.
by Takashi Hiraide
When I go away on holiday, I always make a point of buying a book (and some merchandise) at an independent book store. I picked up this book at Green Apples Books while on holiday in San Francisco. (One of five books I bought while I was there. The book store scene in San Francisco is such a joy.)
The Guest Cat is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living.
A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife — the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens …
I was really captivated by the beauty of the writing within this book, and hit unexpectedly hard by the emotions within such a mediative novel. I think it's especially relevant to those hitting their 30s and 40s as it really hits upon this phase of life, where you feel you should have everything figured out but certainly do not. It also shows how such a small creature can quickly take up residence in your heart when you least expect it.
by Haruki Murakami
If you've had a peruse about my shop, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you'll know that Haruki Murakami is possibly my favourite author. One of the many reasons I'm drawn to Murakami is as we seem to have many things in common; a love for magical realism, whiskey and cats.
Cats appear in many of his novels, and specifically play key roles in two of my favourites; Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Kafka on the Shore follows two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who after an unusual event during the war, is able to converse with cats.
Kafka may be my favourite Murakami novel (I'm not quite ready to say that for sure as I may change my mind when I do a full re-read of his novels soon). It was one of the first I picked up over ten years ago, and the first magical realism book I ever read. Obviously I was delighted by the inclusion of cats, even if things do unfortunately get a little ... gruesome, but the adventures undertaken by the wonderfully compelling characters, the ponderous questions it asks, and the sheer weirdness of the whole thing just had me in love with the novel as a whole.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, while searching for his wife's missing cat, Toru Okada finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.
The whole plot of Wind-Up is set off by the search for a missing cat. Another one of Murakami's magical realism tales (I do have to admit to preferring those to his more realistic stories), it is, shall we say, rather bizarre. But I do mean that in the most positive of terms. You want a novel that will keep you intrigued with every page? Don't mind not understanding what the hell is going on? (If you're reading Murakami, then you must not.) Then this novel is for you.
by Soseki Natsume
I loved this book for many reasons, not only as it views human domestic lives through the eyes of a cat, but as it's set during the Meiji era and written in 1905-06. This time in Japanese history, a few decades after the end of the country's 300 year isolation period, when they are still figuring out their place in the world and dealing with western influence, is fascinating. Well, at least to me, but then I'm more than a little bit of a history nerd.
Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature - from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From this unique perfective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary - shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy - on the social upheaval of the early 1900s.
I wouldn't recommend this book to those who are just cat lovers, or who have a passing interest in Japan. You definitely need to know a bit about Japanese history and have an interest in the country from a sociological perspective to enjoy it (to anyone who doesn't, I'd say you'll find it a bit slow and probably boring). These are things I'm keenly interested in, but even then it did take me a fair while to get through the book, as it's quite weighty and requires more than a few internet searches to find the full meaning behind parts.
But if these are things that you love, then you'll find the time spent reading this book well spent.
by Hiro Arikawa
This book is actually still on my to-read pile, but I have a number of friends who have read it and were absolutely besotted by it. They've told me of how deeply it impacted them emotionally, and from the synopsis, it seems right up my street.
Nana, a cat, is devoted to Satoru, his owner. So when Satoru decides to go on a roadtrip one day to find him a new home, Nana is perplexed. They visit Satoru's old friends from his school days and early youth. His friends may have untidy emotional lives but they are all animal lovers, and they also wonder why Satoru is trying to give his beloved cat away. Until the day Nana suddenly understands a long-held secret about his much-loved owner, and his heart begins to break. Narrated in turns by Nana and by his owner, this funny, uplifting, heartrending story of a cat is nothing if not profoundly human.
Have you enjoyed any of these books? Are there any other books about cats, Japanese or not, that you'd recommend?
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