The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Sometime back I remember reading about netsukes. Drawn by their intricate carvings and plethora of depictions, I remember thinking how I would love to have one of them. The word ‘netsuke’ itself is derived from the Japanese characters “ne” and “tsuke” meaning root and attach respectively. This is what Chibi, the titular cat in Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat reminded me of. She was like an exquisitely beautiful little netsuke that attracted the writer and his wife both of whom get attached to her.

Reading The Guest Cat can be a bit like mindful meditation where you are aware of every detail in your surroundings. While I could see how some readers might find it slow, to me it was quiet, reflective, soothing, and peaceful. Hiraide is a well-known poet in Japan and his prose is redolent with poetic imagery that is fluid and extremely vivid. This is evident from the beginning when we get familiar with the narrator/author’s house, its every crevice and corner, without sounding like a realtor’s tour.

“And this sloping ceiling of frosted glass, with slits like a bamboo screen, doubled the effect of the skylight. I would lie here on a woven mat, using my arm as a pillow, and await the changing of the light.

A bird would alight on the eaves and press its pink feet on the glass roof and just as soon begin to slide down its slippery surface. Taken by surprise, the bird would quickly flee, making it to one of the wooden crosspieces in a few wingbeats.”

Then we learn of the Kyoto-style garden, “a collection of well-trimmed green hemispheres” that was attached to the main house, a wall away. One by one, we are introduced to the spaces, people, and events that make up the author’s life. How he finally gathered the courage to quit his publishing job and become a freelance writer in order to add quality to his life, his worries about managing expenses, interactions with his wife, and of the old couple from whom he has rented the house. Amidst all of this, is Chibi, a thread that forms the book’s jugular. She is like a netsuke that attaches itself to different sashes of thought.

The author and his wife’s mundane life suddenly takes on meaning with the appearance of Chibi, a “jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown.” Although Chibi, meaning ‘little one’, belonged to the neighbours she spent a lot of time at the couple’s house; sometimes as much as half the day where all she did was sleep and eat the fried mackerel the author’s wife had prepared for her. As the frequency of Chibi’s visits increased the couple made a little home for her out of a basket. They come to love her so much that their days, and eventually major life-decisions, now revolved around Chibi. When the old man who owned the house passed away, his wife decided to sell the property. The author’s first thought was to find a place suitable for Chibi.

“Overhearing me mutter to myself, my wife smiled a wry sort of smile – ‘Odd how you still refer to her as a ‘guest’ despite having become so attached.’”

So, where is the story heading? Unlike most books that have a resolution and a neatly packaged ending, The Guest Cat has none. Of course, towards the end, it converges on an incident, or incidents if you will, but the rest of the book is more like a collection of vignettes; slices of Japan and within that, slices of the author’s life over the few years that Chibi was with him. The freewheeling narrative is deliciously molten, flowing in and out of various topics. And I could identify with almost all of them. The old couple and their age-induced troubles gave me pause as I thought of my own parents who are getting on. The real estate scene in Japan with its prices continuously shooting north reminded me of the similarly inflated housing market in my city in India. The garden with its buzzing bees and colourful butterflies brought to mind my own garden, again in India, carefully tended to by my mother. And then there is Chibi. I have a dog and I grew attached to him slowly over time just like the author and his wife grows to love Chibi.

In the end, it’s a book about the transient nature of life and relationships. It reminds us to love when we can and then draw strength from that love to let it go when it’s needed. Because nothing remains. The garden has withered away, the house is unattended, and even the little visitors to the garden have disappeared.

“So, late that summer, using the passkey which I still had in my possession, I went inside for a last look. The garden was smothered in tall weeds and the pond was all dried up. There was no sign of its former charm or of all the animal life which used to fill it…Only the Rose of Sharon winding its way up the wall of the toolshed was in bloom, swaying in the soft light of summer’s end.”

For a book that’s just 136 pages long, it holds weighty matters like these. At the risk of sounding repetitive, Hiraide’s language (Eric Selland’s stellar translation) is luminous. How can I not quote descriptions of Chibi where she is “like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma” or where she plays “all day in the garden, which showed the first stirrings of spring’s energy and chaos, rolling in the plum blossoms, getting the petals stuck in her fur, swatting flies, sniffing lizards”? Language apart, the book’s semiautobiographical nature that blurs the line between reality and fiction, as well as its elemental and introspective quality alone, makes this a read to be savoured; one that you return to like a beautiful dream.

Verdict:  A little gem that should be in your collection

Rating: 5/5

A version of my review also appears in PureM

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