Friday, May 9, 2014

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

A perfect short novel about loss and the impermanence of all things.

Who is Takashi Hiraide?

Takashi Hiraide is a Japanese poet and essayist, who was born in 1950. He has written one novel, The Guest Cat, which was published in 2001 and this year (2014) was translated into English by Eric Selland.

The blurb on the back of this exquisite short novel says it was a huge hit in France. Perhaps this is no wonder. Takashi Hiraide's intricate and finely drawn prose recalls the work of one of France's most celebrated novelists, Colette. She even wrote a novella called The Cat, a story that concentrated on a young couple and a much loved cat that causes friction in the relationship. Like Colette's The Cat, Hiraide's story features a nuanced portrait of feline behaviour and psychology, and the emotions they elicit in humans.

Chibi makes regular house calls.

The story centres around a couple in their thirties who are renting a small guest house that is attached to a larger house. Their landlady lives in the large house and looks after her ailing husband. It is just a matter of time before she herself will have to sell up and think about putting herself into a retirement home. The couple work in the publishing industry, but money is tight after the husband quit his regular job, so they do their best to eke out a living.

With all this financial uncertainty underpinning their existence (the couple constantly worry about the housing boom which is pricing them out of buying a house), and their ailing landlords living next door, they make friends with a neighbour's cat, called Chibi. The cat is a regular visitor, whom they feed, provide temporary housing for and even sing songs to. The narrator explains:

“It had become one of my wife's greatest pleasures in life to go out into the garden to greet Chibi no matter how busy she might be at the moment and no matter how cold the weather.”

Yet just as this enchanting little relationship is gaining strength, the couple's life, in its own small way, is unravelling. The landlady's husband dies, and she decides to sell up. They have to start looking for another apartment, yet property prices are impossibly high. And of course there is their relationship with Chibi, which has grown more involved and complicated.

A soothing effect on the soul

This is a perfect short novel about loss and the impermanence of all things. Takashi Hiraide's writing is so modest and authentic, he only concentrates on all the very small domestic details of life. Much of the novel is set in the couple's small guest house, and Hiraide paints a breathtakingly delicate and intimate picture of every aspect of the couple's living space and daily life. Like a naturalist, he also describes the bird and insect life that visits the guest house, weaving little philosophical digressions in with his observations. Anyone who has sat in a peacefully still house on a Sunday afternoon with the sun streaming in and enjoyed the fresh breeze coming through the window will recognise themselves in all that he describes. Hiraide writes:

“Like a camera obscura, which transmitted only that which was needed, the house with its breezy interior had a soothing effect on the soul.”

All these elements, the stillness, the sharp observation of place, the inexorable sense of advancing death and decay, and finally the feeling that the world is racing on ahead while you stagnate, gives this story its extraordinary depth. Hiraide's novel is a testament to how powerful even the most simplest truths in fiction can be.

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide. Published by Picador. ISBN: 9781447279402  $19.99

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