There are a few people in my life with whom no conversation is complete without a discussion about books: What are you reading now? Have you read this one? How did you like that other one? So, when I opened a surprise package the other day, my response to its contents was entirely in the spirit of this relationship.
Normally, I allow packages to rest for a couple of days before ripping them open; this time that rule was ignored, don’t-know-why. Inside, to my utter, utter delight, were four books: New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop by Fatima Bhutto; Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald; Patriots & Partisans by Ramachandra Guha; and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. The blurbs made it clear that each book was unique in style and theme: ‘a vast cultural movement… emerging from outside the Western world…about the new arbiters of mass culture — India’s Bollywood films, Turkey’s soap operas, or dizi, and South Korea’s pop music’; ‘Kathy Lette* meets Tom Robbins** on a slow train to Varanasi with Bill Bryson*** supplying the onion bhajis… very very funny’; a collection of essays defending ‘the liberal centre against the dogmas of left and right…with style, depth and polemical verve; and a ‘sweeping yet intimate saga’ set in a time of a terrible, divisive civil war. Such a sweep of voices, from Pakistan, Australia, India and Sri Lanka! I couldn’t have asked for a better delivery.
However, you’re still in for a treat: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa; but first, the back story. My sister will soon celebrate a milestone birthday and her family and friends have been confabulating over what we can do to make it special given that she lives in faraway London and we are hostage to a pandemic. She has two pets, Socks and Diego, who are Norwegian Forest cats, and animal lovers will tell you their pets are human, more than human. So, any celebratory activity would have to have something ‘cat’chy. Since she also loves to read, the first item on the list was reading material. Google threw up several suggestions, among them Hiro Arikawa. The book arrived (at my address, to be sent on later) and I was so captivated by the delicate, Japanese-chic cover, I began reading it instantly.
I was actually going to talk about something else in this column (with an interesting back story as well), but Hiro’s storytelling bowled me over. Reviewer Lynn Truss says on the back cover, ‘Anyone who has ever unashamedly loved an animal will read this book with gratitude, for its understanding of an emotion that ennobles us as human beings, whether we value it or not.’ Writer Fiona Melrose says, ‘The uniqueness of this book is its subtle yet persistent charm that insinuates itself into your heart.’ ‘Bewitching and comforting’ says the Sunday Telegraph.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles is all this and more. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (and I have no way of knowing how true it is to the Japanese), the story reads the way we generally perceive Japanese art, and anything Japanese, really: simple, spare, aesthetic, functional, sophisticated to the point of Zen… The bare bones of the storyline go something like this: Satoru is orphaned as a boy and he goes to live with his aunt. He is sad but finds refuge in a deep love for cats and the love he receives in return from them. When he is older, he rescues a cat whom he adopts and names Nana, apparently Japanese for the number seven because the cat’s tail is shaped like a ‘7’. Then, one day, Satoru and Nana set off in a silver van to visit various of Satoru’s friends from childhood and youth, ostensibly to find Nana a new home because Satoru can no longer keep Nana. We don’t know why. In the process we travel back and forth between the past and the present as the journey takes the two through different seasons in different regions of Japan meeting the different kinds of people Satoru’s childhood friends have grown up to become. Each journey and each encounter bring something new into the lives of Nana and Satoru. Through all this, Nana’s voice reaches us with its observations and comments on humans and life and the experience of being a cat. The interplay of human voice and cat voice reaches to the readers a rich sense of life and learning with gentle and affirming affection.
It is a feel-good book with the sensibility of life’s immense possibilities. As you read, you sigh with agreement, you are moved to tears, you laugh out loud. You see what Nana means when he arches his back or his fur stands on end, you understand what he communicates when he rubs himself against your leg, you unravel the whole dynamic between cats and dogs and how some people are dog people and some are cat people. In other words, you learn a great deal about being a cat, or a dog, and, most definitely, about being a human being.
For instance, there’s a passage about them coming across horses in a field, so they stop to look at them. Satoru says: ‘Look, they’re watching us, Nana’. And Nana says: Not just watching but carefully checking us out. They wanted to see if we were a danger to them. If we had been close enough for them to realize we were just a human and a cat, they would have been relieved. Given their size, I didn’t think they needed to worry. But animals have an instinct. Whatever their size, horses are grass eaters, and grass eaters have a long history of being hunted by meat eaters. This makes them timid and skittish. On the other hand, we cats may be small, but we’re hunters. And hunters are fighters. We’re on our guard, too, with creatures we don’t know, but when it comes to a fight, we’re more than willing to face up to animals much bigger than us. That’s why when dogs meddle with cats for fun, they end up whimpering, their tails between their legs. A dog ten times our size? Bring it on!
There’s mystery too because we don’t know why Satoru wants to give Nana away. Every time Satoru tries to give Nana away, something happens and he doesn’t, much to the relief of both. This melody plays right through the book, through all the events described and scenarios painted. That’s the word. The book, at one level, is like a delicate watercolour painting depicting the reality of the landscape that’s being traversed but exuding a magical aura at every turn. By the time you reach the end of the novel, you are filled with a sense of peace in an ever-expanding space.
As a bookseller from Waterstones, a well-known chain of book stores, says: ‘This is the book I am giving everyone.’
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.
*According to Goodreads, Kathy Letter divides her time being a fulltime writer, demented mother and trying to find a shopping trolley that doesn’t have a clubbed wheel. **Tom Robbins’ novels are complex, often wild stories with strong social undercurrents, a satirical bent, and obscure details. ***According to Wikipedia, Bill Bryson writes on travel, the English language, science and other nonfiction books.