I had many reasons for being tempted by ‘The Guest Cat.’ Besides from the obvious (I like reading; I like cats) there were the arresting cover, the fact that I’d been planning on reading more Japanese literature this year and the peer pressure that comes with every literary best-seller. Autumn is the perfect time for snuggling up with a book (and a cat, if the occasion provides). If I needed any further excuse, finishing Natume’s ‘I am a cat’ gave me an added reason to enjoy contemporary feline-themed fiction.
I say contemporary, because the novel is set in 1980s Tokyo where the narrator and his wife have found the perfect apartment to rent. They are aware of their own good fortune; as the book progresses, the housing market booms with consequences that sadly resonate all too well for readers today. This dichotomy between the stability of a ‘home’ and the precarious status of the renters is embodied through their relationship with the neighbours’ cat, Chibi.
As the title of the novella informs us, Chibi is only a guest in the lives of our central couple. Her relationship with them is ostensibly transient and temporary. Her impact however is immense, turning the narrator into a cat lover and consuming his already animal-friendly wife. In fact, though the picture on the book’s cover is very cute and the descriptions of Chibi’s charms very detailed, it’s also easy to read her as a symbol for much that is right and wrong with the society in which the novel is set. Home-loving but promiscuous, domesticated but capable of violence, playful, clever and lazy, Chibi is a mass of contradictions held together by the love of her surrogate owners.
If all this sounds a bit philosophical, then blame the novel. There seems to be something about cat books that insists on going below the surface, from the discussion of ‘ineffable’ names in Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats‘ to Lynn Truss’s erudite and terrifying protagonists in ‘Cat Out of Hell.’ In less than 150 pages, ‘The Guest Cat’ covers love, death and housing prices with a dose of Machiavelli, Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) and the working of a camera obscura for anyone who wants further food for reflection. A slight volume that deals with big themes, it’s easy to see why the book was such a success. Personally, I wouldn’t say it was my favourite cat novel (the field is simply too strong), but ‘The Guest Cat’ has much to offer lovers of cats, reading and thoughtful reflection and probably belongs in every well stocked bookshelf, at least until it wanders off again…