The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

If you’re anything like me, animal-companion novels aren’t really your bag. Some are a smidge too cloying. Others are embarrassingly trite. Call it erring on the side of being unnecessarily cynical but, for me, books dedicated to spelling out the deep connection between man and beast elicit more eye rolls than epiphanies.

So it was with a mix of skepticism and resignation that I picked up Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Already a best-seller in Japan and translated by the great Philip Gabriel (the award-winning translator of renowned works by Haruki Murakami and Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe), it did have a lot going for it. Still, I was prepared to hate it.

Weirdly enough, I didn’t. In fact, I felt quite the opposite.

The story’s setup is a simple one. Our furry protagonist and partial narrator is a scrappy stray cat named Nana, who is taken in and adopted after being struck by a car. His new owner is soft-spoken Satoru, a 25-year-old man who lives alone in a tidy, sparsely decorated apartment in Tokyo.

Being a cat, Nana is suspicious of the situation at first. After all, the transition from freewheeling feline-about-town to pampered indoor pet rarely goes well. But with a healthy daily dose of Satoru’s scratches underneath the chin and plenty of scrumptious “crunchies” in his bowl at his disposal, Nana gets “back on [his] paws” and becomes accustomed to his cushy new digs in no time.

Five blissful years pass by in the blink of a sentence — unlike some pet lit authors, Arikawa thankfully doesn’t rely on minutiae to fatten the plot. At the end of the prologue, all is going swimmingly until Satoru shares the news about some “unavoidable circumstances.” Basically, it’s time to find Nana a new place to live.

While it’s not hard to guess why Nana needs rehoming — nonetheless, I’ll refrain from bean-spilling here — the unfortunate turn of events doesn’t dampen Nana’s spirit, nor does it distract from the overall narrative. Instead, the search for other accommodations provides the catalyst for the rest of the book — a road trip that is both heartwarming and a little like the Japanese version of Travels With Charley.

Relayed in alternating sections of third-person and Nana-narration, past and present, Satoru and Nana’s intrepid journey is an exquisitely described tour of Japan’s picturesque countryside through the seasons. In between mini excursions to gaze at Mount Fuji, to listen to the “green seedlings swaying in the fields” in the town where Satoru grew up and hear the “frighteningly loud roar” of the sea, to smell the “vibrant purple and yellow flowers” by the side of the road in Hokkaido, and to ride on a “huge white ferry, which swallowed up cars into its stomach,” the two companions travel to various parts of Japan to visit the homes of three of Satoru’s old childhood friends in the hopes of finding a suitable placement.

Photo: Transworld Publishing

Each stop is not only a glimpse into Nana’s potential future, but also a doorway into Satoru’s past. There, we meet elementary-school-aged Satoru in the days after his parents die in a car crash and the boy, Kosuke, who nurtures his friend through the trauma. We witness Satoru living with his aunt in high school and chumming around with Yoshimine, whose soon-to-be divorced parents abandon him and who teaches Satoru the quiet joy of gardening. And we encounter Chikako, a fellow cat lover who briefly captures Satoru’s heart in high school, and their good friend, Sugi, whom she ends up marrying after college.

In total, these pit stops — and Satoru’s hard-won decision about what to do with Nana in the end — reveal deep insights about Satoru’s inherent capacity for kindness, his faith in humanity, and his willingness to put others’ needs above his own. They also speak volumes about our need for connection — human, feline or otherwise. After all, no man should have to be an island if he can help it. Neither, Arikawa clearly argues, should cats.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles certainly isn’t for everyone. (I’m looking at you, fast-paced-action lovers.) It’s not without its flaws, either. (Why, oh why, is the question of Satoru’s aloneness left unexplored? Wouldn’t such a softhearted young man be a magnet for the ladies?) Yet despite the fact that I wanted even more access into Nana’s inner thoughts, I still felt his finicky and frisky personality was delightfully true to form. (The scenes involving his interactions with other animals and his love for 1980s box TVs are spot on.)

Plus, for all of you holdouts out there, it’s worth reiterating that Arikawa’s novel was originally  written for a Japanese audience. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is as much a loving tribute to Japan’s obsession with and reverence for cats as it is an endearing introduction for non-Japanese readers to the country’s ever-fascinating culture and deeply rooted traditions.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 21, 2018)

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