The Japanese are fascinated by cats, and it’s not difficult to find shrines dedicated to them. There are cats that live in train stations (one, at least, has a uniform and a “job”) and cat cafés, where people go to pet them and hang out with them. We are all familiar with the maneki-neko, the beckoning good-luck cat who appears in Asian shops everywhere, ensuring the success and prosperity of the enterprise. And they like to write about them, too; in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book (1002) the Emperor Ichijo, who was the earliest Japanese emperor (or anyone else of note in Japan) to own one, loses his cat at one point, and everyone has to go and look for it.
Centuries later Japan’s most eminent modern novelist, Natsume Sōseki, produced his three-volume masterpiece I Am A Cat over a period of two years (1904-06), and the reason it had three volumes is because the reading public wanted more than Sōseki had originally planned to write. The book is, among other things, a scathing critique of conformity and an attack on the pretensions of academics (he lives with one), all seen through the eyes of a ferociously intelligent, but sometimes pompous cat who, unlike Nana in Hiro Arikawa’s book, never manages to acquire a name and ends up getting himself drowned in a container of beer out of which he can’t climb. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, famous amongst other works for The Makioka Sisters, wrote a novella entitled A Cat, A Man, and Two Women in 1936, where a cat named Lily is the focus for the relationship between the three characters.
There is even, courtesy of author Jiro Akugawa, a Japanese detective cat named Holmes who can understand human language and has strange deductive powers which he uses to team up with a policeman and solve crimes.
Arikawa has a knack for making cats believable.
This book is somewhat different from the others, featuring a cat who travels with his owner in a silver van, though I am pretty sure that Arikawa is very familiar with Sōseki’s cat, as Nana himself is one of the narrators and he can be quite critical of humans and their motives. The difference is that this book is very gentle and the humor doesn’t often bite; it’s a book about connection and communication, and about the nature of the relationship between cats and humans, or, by extension, animals and humans. Loving animals is one of the things that elevates human beings and endows them with a kind of nobility.
The book may be written in a simple and plain style, but don’t let that fool you; Arikawa may be disingenuous sometimes, but she does have some serious things to say in this book, and they are worth saying. It’s also a book about a journey; after Satoru adopts the stray cat and names him Nana, they embark together on a journey to various parts of Japan and visit people, some of them from Satoru’s past.
This traveling structure means that the book is a quest novel, but we don’t know exactly what is being looked for, which is why the ending is so poignant and I won’t spoil it by repeating it here. “As we count off the memories from one journey,” Nana says at the very end of the book
we head off on another. Remembering those who went ahead. Remembering those who follow after.
The book is about memories, as Satoru reunites with his aunt Noriko, who had a hand in raising him, and as Nana relives his past and learns to live side by side with another cat.
Nana does not know until the end of the book why Satoru wants to go on a long road trip and take him along for the ride, and neither does the reader. What we know is that for some reason Satoru himself feels that he can’t look after the cat for ever and needs to find him a home. He visits several old friends he hasn’t seen for a long time as well as his aunt Noriko. At one point, Nana stays with Satoru’s friends Sugi and Chikako, who own a bed-and-breakfast for pet owners.
This is the narrative framework as Satoru and Nana travel around Japan in the silver van, and through this we are filled in on their pasts and what their relationships were between themselves and other humans or cats. The link between Nana and Satoru turns out to be a cat called Hachi whose care Satoru and his family had taken over because his friend Kosuke’s father wouldn’t let him keep it. When Satoru’s parents are killed in an accident, he has to go and live with his aunt, but Hachi can’t go with him and Kosuke’s father still refuses to take him. This abandonment is what leads Satoru to adopt Nana, and the indestructible bonding begins. “I will never, ever leave him,” Nana says later in their relationship, and he never does, as the ending will demonstrate. Everyone needs a connection in life’s journey, and Satoru, a quiet and sensitive man, genuinely comes to love Nana, not just as a “pet” but as a genuine and empathetic companion.
Arikawa’s double narrative works very well in bringing this out. “Cats take quietly whatever comes their way,” muses Nana just before Satoru decides to take him on the journey,
as Satoru’s roommate I had been a perfect cat, so I should be a perfect companion on this journey he seemed intent on making.
And the cat, who is really the center of the novel, brings out not just the compassionate, caring and loving qualities of Satoru, but demonstrates that others have them, too. Satoru’s friends respond positively to both Nana and himself, and Noriko, the reluctant cat-minder, is won over to the extent that she allows another cat, also an abandoned one, which she calls Calico, into her house. Nana’s reaction is “Welcome. You’re the next cat, aren’t you?” He observes wryly a little later,
And so Noriko plunged into a life in which this demanding young kitten has her wrapped around her little finger every day.
In a rather moving twist at the end, Nana says of Noriko,
we live together, but I’m not Noriko’s cat. Forever and ever I am your cat, Satoru. That’s why I can’t become Noriko’s.
By that time, though, Satoru is dead.
The success of Arikawa’s novel is her knack for making cats believable. Of course, they can’t speak or speculate, so there’s always the danger of anthropomorphising them. Sōseki’s cat, for all the intelligence he displays, often seems just a little bit too observant and satirical in his commentary on humans, but Nana is much less formal and not as negative. He wonders at the things humans do; “humans are so easygoing,” he observes, but “a cat’s behaviour is controlled by real-life factors,” and he doesn’t like the way some of them stare at him. “Hey, you idiotic couple,” he “says” to two young people watching him eat, “how would you like it if somebody pointed at you when you’re eating?”
Nana is curious about other life-forms, too; he knows about dogs and cats, but horses are quite another thing.
Horses? Those things? I’d seen them on TV, but this was my first time seeing the real thing. On TV, they looked much bigger.
These light touches are all over the book, because although Arikawa has some serious things to say about the relationship between people and animals, not to mention about human love and friendship, she knows that these episodes make the book warmer and more … human.
The book has an almost folkloric aspect, too, because it’s about those uncomplicated human traits such as friendship, loyalty, and even sacrifice, not just on the part of Nana, but from Satoru and Noriko, too. In spite of the ostensibly sad ending, this is a positive book because it suggests continuity over transience. “My story will be over soon,” Nana observes at the end, “But it’s not something to be sad about.”