“What greater gift than the love of a cat.” ― Charles Dickens
One shining, sunny afternoon, slipping through a crack in the open door, four bright white feet stepped softly onto the room’s insulated drain board, and with a well-honed curiosity rushing through her entire body, Chibi quietly surveyed its meagre interior.
A married couple in their mid-thirties live a solitary life in urban Tokyo, in a small rented guesthouse on the border of an estate owned by an elderly woman and her ageing husband. Both husband and wife work from home, freelance copy-editing, writing, and proofreading from their solitary desks – it has been a long time since either one has had very much to say to the other.
Late in the autumn of 1988 a small cat, tamed by a young boy who lives next door, invites itself into their humble kitchen and begins to explore its surroundings. The cat becomes a regular feature in the couple’s home, and brings warmth and love into their lives. As the cat comes and goes, seemingly set in her routine, the couple begin to talk about her, to anticipate her arrival and share stories about her. The arrival of the guest cat opens a door which had seemed closed forever.
In his New York Times Bestseller, Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide eloquently explores the remarkable bond between man and cat. When the guest cat enters the couple’s house, she brings with her a feeling of hope; suddenly life seems to hold more promise for the husband and wife, and their days are filled with a new kind of meaning.
It is not out of preference that I use the word fate – or should say, Fortuna – but as the young cat’s visits became more frequent, I came to feel that there were some things only this word could express.
I have been told that cats emit a certain type of pheromone which makes them more attractive to the people they are around. This, some say, is why so many people do not realise how much they love cats until they have one of their own. The husband, whose voice the novella is written in, describes himself and his wife as neither having a particular liking for cats. But this all changes when the guest cat first sets foot into their kitchen.
There’s a photographer who says cat lovers always believe their own cat is better looking than anyone else’s. According to her, they’ve all got blinders on. She also says that, though she too is a major cat lover, having noticed this fact means that she is now hated by all cat lovers, and so these days only takes pictures of scruffy-looking strays.
It is almost as though the cat fills the empty space between the man and his wife, a space perhaps reserved for a child. I imagine that the cat’s name, Chibi, which we are told means ‘little one’, alludes to her importance to the man and his wife. She is so much more than just a cat to the couple; she is a friend, a companion, something which gives their life meaning. With Chibi in their lives, the house, the garden, the zolkova tree and even the dark ‘lightening alley’ all have more light and colour. Everything brims with a new beauty created by the smallest of pleasures – watching the cat play with a ball, or hearing the gentle tinkling of her collar.
I was bought the guest cat by my father-in-law this past Christmas; he has clearly noticed that my two favourite things in life are books and cats. There was no doubt in my mind that I would enjoy the book – my father-in-law is an excellent judge of reading material – but I didn’t anticipate just how much pleasure I would take from such a short piece of writing. The book is gentle, and beautiful, simply brimming with imagery and poetics. In just 140 pages Hiraide manages to speak volumes about the complexities of life and the existence of joy in the most unlikely places.
The writing has a stunning eloquence that fans of Japanese literature will admire. There is something I find so appealing about Japanese translations; the words seem to possess a unique flow, a beauty completely their own. The translated words stream effortlessly across the page, swirling into stunning imagery and deeply profound passages of thought, the result of which is a rare and wonderful treasure of a novella.
Needless to say, I would recommend this book. It is gentle and poetic, yet captivating enough to read in a single setting. This one is not just for cat lovers.