Book Review: The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

The Guest Cat
By Takashi Hiraide
Picador

Review by Harry Martin

To those living in an urban setting, animals offer a sobering reality. They provide us with a
view outside the fabricated modern world where everything is anticipated with unquestioned
predictability. They elicit a sense of calm, provoking an innate connection with nature that lies within
us, prompting a reminder that our modern-day obligations and priorities are not perhaps
paramount.

The exploration of this theme is what provides the backbone to this thoughtful and simple story by
the poet Takashi Hiraide. “The Guest Cat” has already proved a massive hit with readers worldwide,
both in Hiraide’s native Japan as well as with international audiences in its various translated
incarnations.

The source of this seemingly universal appeal maybe in the story’s relative simplicity: set in 1980s
Japan amongst the economic instability and political changes of the time, we follow the lives of an
ordinary couple in their 30s living an ordinary life in a typically suburban setting. Having long passed
the passions of their early relationship and now well established in their daily routine, there is little
joy, spontaneity or even real communication between husband and wife. Both self-
employed workers, their days are spent at home, passing one another by; living together physically
but mentally apart. That is until they’re visited by their neighbour’s cat Chibi.

What starts out as a novel distraction from the commonplace gradually becomes a regular, daily
event to the point where Chibi’s arrival is anticipated with delighted expectation. The couple are
almost taken aback by their own enthusiasm and joy derived from these visits, gradually adapting
their home to accommodate their new guest and adopting a sense of secondary ownership, knowing
that the cat is not theirs but allowing themselves to form an almost parental affection. Along
with Chibi comes a new sense of vitality, animating an otherwise stagnant and empty home with life
and meaning, providing the couple with a new focus to their relationship and bringing them together
through shared affection.

As often found in Japanese literature, Hiraide has granted nature a central role and, alongside
the dominant presence of Chibi the cat, there are ubiquitous references to the commanding
influence that the local flora and fauna exhibit in this otherwise strictly urban setting. Even
the towering presence of the old Zelkova tree in the couple’s garden seems to emphasis
the smallness of their claustrophobic world and the overarching control Mother Nature holds over
them. This is also detected in the other Japanese literary staple; the four seasons. The momentum
of the story kept to pace by their passing, relentlessly rolling forward through all the political and
economic changes happening in Japan during this time as well as the localised events affecting the
small world of this one couple.

However nowhere is Hiraide’s writing executed with more clarity than in his depiction of Chibi the
cat himself. Through a myriad of wonderfully descriptive phrases the cat is brought to life with
almost tangible realism, showcasing all those characteristics any cat owner will immediately
recognise – capricious wilfulness and unpredictability interspersed with self-satisfying signs of
affection and the sense of wellbeing and warmth they can provide us with.

This is a story celebrating the importance of nature in the modern world, emphasising the often
unrecognised and undervalued relevance it can have on us, especially for those furthest removed in
cities and towns. It celebrates the embracing presence of Mother Nature and how despite
our rebellions and protests, we will always need to return to her in one form or another to remind us
of who we are.

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