Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles has the most thoughtfully drawn out animal character
Jun 1, 2019-
This is a pure book. It is the only way to describe it. It’s a novel that turns you into a child with its innocence, and untouched, naïve mannerisms.
“I am a cat,” says haughty Nana, beginning this tale with his tail shaped like the Japanese number seven, borrowing his words from a famous feline novel written by Natsume Soseki more than a hundred years ago. This time, the cat is not concerned with society or culture, like his predecessor. Rather he is intent on taking us along on adventures he takes with his master Satoru, seated proudly on the front seat of a silver van.
A stray cat, Nana is adopted by gentle Satoru, and the two enjoy a companionable, if quiet, relationship. Nana can often be cranky, but he is intelligent and intuitive and understands humans perfectly. In fact, he considers himself a “sensible cat”, and believes he can “quietly take whatever comes their way.” Even when Satoru explains he will have to live somewhere else, Nana remains stoic.
“Life, be it human or feline, doesn’t always work out the way you think it will,” he philosophises.
So off we are dragged along with cat and master, from one home to another, as Satoru searches for the perfect family to leave behind his beloved pet. It starts as a physical journey, but soon morphs into an emotional one, encompassing Satoru’s old friends and family. Each leg of the journey unravels more of the person Satoru is—his troubles, insecurities and benevolence. Nana meets his master’s childhood friends, then high school ones, and finally a family member. Into this tapestry is woven a distinct story of Satoru’s earlier cat, one that induces great jealousy in Nana, so deep is Satoru’s attachment to him.
In episodic chapters, the duo stop at three places. First is Kosuke, Satoru’s school pal who wants a cat to make up with his wife. Then comes Yoshimine, who only wants a ‘real cat’ to catch mice for him. The third visit is to Satoru’s college friends, Sugi and Chikako, who run a cosy hotel for pets.
At every new destination, Satoru fully intends to leave his cat behind. But, somehow, the next morning always sees the master and his beloved travelling together again. This recurring motif is like a jigsaw being fitted together, to give us a complete picture of the two protagonists. It is sweet but pretty ordinary, and nothing to write home about. In fact, it can even seem stretched out and boring at times, with readers tiring out due to a certain ennui, a repetition of feelings and memories. The voice changes from Nana’s to an omniscient one, and back again, without gaps or pauses, making it difficult to follow at times.
That’s until you reach a certain page somewhere past halfway when everything changes. There is an acute feeling of foreboding and shock, as Nana tries to prevent a dog saying aloud the thought that was in the back of our minds, but scared to express.
To sensitive minds and hearts, and especially to cat lovers (or any pet owners, actually), the book is a cryfest from then on. It will make you think of all the animals you have loved in the past, and all those yet to melt your hearts.
It’s a simple story, very simply and almost artlessly told. No earth-shattering literary techniques, no ornate language—just a cat and his master, together forever.
The pull here is the depth and breadth of Nana’s character. Initially, he is a typical cat, with a fixation for boxes, his sneer and refusal of intimacy. He does, however, keep up an internal monologue that is highly entertaining and engaging.
When strangers try to accost him as he is eating, he fluffs up, “Hey, you idiotic couple. How would you like it if somebody pointed at you if you were eating?”
From his first experience at the sea, he learns a valuable lesson, “The sea is where you go to reminisce when you are far away from home.” However, “Delicacies of the sea are not something cats should catch by themselves. It’s quite acceptable to allow humans to prepare them for us.”
He also bestows us with nuggets of wisdom, again quite enjoyable: “Cats have their own preferences when it comes to music. Did you know that?”
A true epitome of the curious cat, he is excited to explore new things his master points out, and prizes his knowledge.
Towards the end, Nana’s attempts to cover up his loving heart with an indifferent, opinionated veneer collapse completely, and he emerges as the devoted pet he is. This transformation, from a standoffish creature to “the happiest cat on earth”, is brought about so subtly and skillfully, it must be one of the most thoughtfully drawn out animal characters.
“How could I ever leave him, having experienced that kind of love?” he agonises about his master, “I will never, ever, leave him.”
Saturo is also a beautifully crafted character, especially in the ways he imbibes love and all other emotions; tearing through the garb of masculinity. He is neither afraid nor ashamed to show his true feelings.
For a moment, when he thinks he has lost Nana among tall, wild grass, he panics. When he finally discovers Nana, the cat realises:
“The instant our eyes met, his stern look melted. His eyes softened and light caught the trails of water sliding down his cheeks. Without a word, he knelt down on the earth, placed his big hands around my middle and hugged me.”
Also worth noting are the vivid scenic details from the voyages that the two take all over Japan, in changing seasons. The part where Nana describes all that he saw and experienced with Saturo, it is music and poetry and almost tangible beauty:
And the green seedlings swaying in the field.
The sea, with this frighteningly loud roar.
Mount Fuji, looming over me.
That huge white ferry, which swallowed up cars into its stomach.
The land in Hokkaido stretching out for ever.
Those vibrant purple and yellow flowers by the side of the road.
The field of pampas grass like an ocean.
The horses chomping on the grass.
The bright red berries on the mountain-ash trees.
The stands of slender white birch.
I would remember this for the rest of my life.
A cat (neko) often slithers in and out of Japanese life and literature—there were an estimated 9.59 million cats in the country in 2014. There was a huge uproar when the combined number of cats and dogs in the country topped the number of children, back in 2003. We are familiar with the cats that inhabit Murakami’s works, doubling up as omens, enigma, and friends. There are also plenty of works where animals take centre-stage. But somehow, this cat chronicle is different because it achingly depicts the unadulterated relationship one can share with no one but an animal. This chronicle doesn’t indulge in drama, rather employs only simple, basic words. It’s just life as it flows, plain yet precious; bittersweet and poignant.
It will break your heart, but also, surprisingly, make you grateful for your life and the beauty it has to offer.
Bhattarai loves to write, and even more to read. She tweets @15n3quarters
The Traveling Cat Chronicles
Author: Hiro Arikawa
Publisher: Random Penguin House UK
Published: 01-06-2019 08:23