The U.S. publication of a bestselling Japanese novel will prompt one or two curious readers to wonder how it measures up against the fiction of that country’s most famous living writer, Haruki Murakami. More still may find their curiosity piqued on learning that this novel has been translated — beautifully — by Murakami’s translator, Philip Gabriel, and that it incorporates a fantastical Murakami conceit: a cat that can talk — or, to be precise, narrate.
However, the author of “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” is a different kind of storyteller than the author of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” Feline narrator aside, Hiro Arikawa’s novel eschews Murakami’s blend, and indeed brand, of the mundane and the outlandish for straightforward realism. At its most basic level, it is a gentle, whimsical tale about a young man looking for a new home for his beloved cat. But as he revisits his past and reveals the reasons for his search and the depth of his affection, the book acquires a rare emotional power that intensifies until the final page.
Satoru first encounters Nana as a stray, sleeping on the warm hood of his silver van. He adopts him and the pair live in his Tokyo apartment for five years. Then one day, due to cryptic “unavoidable circumstances,” Satoru announces that he has to let Nana go. So begins a life-affirming journey and an urgent mission to find a worthy owner.
It proves to be quite an eventful road trip. Satoru makes several stops to stay with old pals from his childhood and school days. Over the course of each visit, Arikawa shows how the hosts are unsuitable for Nana. She also flashes back to Satoru’s youth to trace budding friendships, family tension, adolescent scrapes and character-shaping trauma.
Down to his last option, Satoru heads to Hokkaido to see if his Aunt Noriko might open her door and her heart to Nana. It is here, at the end of the road, that he finally explains himself. His disclosure floors his cat and his reader, but also leads us to reflect on our capacity to engender joy and well-being in others through displays of loyalty and small acts of kindness.
This requires great artistry and precision on Arikawa’s part: One false move and what should be tender and insightful ends up saccharine and moralistic. Arikawa achieves her desired effect in several ways. She offsets pleasure with pain, cutting from Satoru’s happy reunions in the present to the deaths, divorces, separations and rivalries that scarred his boyhood. And she gives Nana a commanding narrative voice imbued with dry wit, cynicism and awe. “Life,” muses Nana, “be it human or feline, doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.” This bittersweet novel offers a compelling cat’s-eye view of Japan and the odder aspects of human nature. Banish any skepticism and hitch a ride with “the world’s greatest traveling cat.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles
By: Hiro Arikawa, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.
Publisher: Berkley, 288 pages, $20.