Cats have a storied pedigree in Japanese literature. One of modern Japanese literature’s first classics, I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki, is a parody of Meiji-era Japanese society from a cat’s point of view. (2021 saw the English-language release of a faithful manga adaptation by Chiroru Kobato, translated by Zach Davisson.) Thirty years later, the highly influential author Junichiro Tanizaki published the novella A Cat, a Man, and Two Women.
Cats feature prominently in the work of Haruki Murakami; in Kafka on the Shore, for example, one of the main characters can speak to cats. In the past decade, Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles, Takahashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, and Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World, have all debuted in English-language translations.
So Sosuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books, now in translation by Louise Heal Kawai, is in good company.
What could be little more than a saccharine “cat novel” is also a witty satire on the state of the publishing industry, academia, and the capitalist market of ideas.
Rintaro Natsuki has grown up working in his grandfather’s bookstore. Now that his grandfather is dead, Rinatro will have to close Natsuki Books for good. A talking tabby cat named Tiger shows up to take him on one last literary adventure. Together with Sayo Yuzuki, a strong-willed girl from Rinto’s high school, Rintaro and Tiger set out to “save” books from four mysterious “labyrinths” by convincing the men at their center what books are really for.
What could be little more than a saccharine “cat novel” is also a witty satire on the state of the publishing industry, academia, and the capitalist market of ideas. At the center of the first labyrinth, for example, the heroes find “the imprisoner of books”—a pompous reader of one hundred books a month and a collection of more than 57,000 volumes. For the “imprisoner of books”, books are just another incarnation of conspicuous consumption.
In the second labyrinth, speedreaders pull books apart; their leader wants to distill them down only to what he deems their most important ideas. In the third labyrinth, publishers endlessly release new content whether it’s worth reading or not. “Books are expendable goods. It’s my job to make sure they are consumed in the most efficient way possible,” the man at the labyrinth’s center declares.
Behind each of these caricatures, though, are very real criticisms of a culture that makes reading and deep thought difficult. However misguided their solutions, the problems the leaders of the labyrinths try to solve are very real. It’s difficult not to agree with the man at the center of the third labyrinth’s conclusion about the challenges 21st-century readers face:
They say that people don’t read anymore. But that’s just not true. They’re too busy. There really is a limit to the time they can spend on reading. But there are so many books they want to read.
Natsukawa’s narrator does a lot of literary name-dropping. The Anglo- and Euro-centrism of the authors she chooses are a little disconcerting—at least for an English-language reader of a Japanese novel in translation. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dumas, Faulkner, Nietzsche, Voltaire, and Saint-Exupéry all make appearances. With the exception of Osamu Dazai, there are virtually no Japanese authors. From the Global South, there is only Gabríel García Marquez. Jane Austen is the only woman.
Overall, though, The Cat Who Saved Books stands out as a sticking indictment of a society where most people have no leisure to read, where the elite claim more their fair share and throttle the flow of information, and where market forces determine the fate of ideas.