Books

Hiro Arikawa
The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles has an unusual narrator: a tough-talking, no-nonsense white male cat who declares himself, rather proudly, a “realist”. Nana, as he is later named – a reference in Japanese to his crooked tail that looks like a lucky number seven – survives on the streets, scrounging scraps from humans and catching mice for food.

That is until he meets Satoru. The 30-year-old city worker offers Nana a piece of fried chicken from his own sandwich, carefully stripping off the batter, and laying the meat gingerly on his palm. “You want me to eat right out of your hand?” Nana scoffs. “You think you’ll get all friendly with me by doing that? I’m not that easy.”

Of course, Nana is that easy. Tempted not only by a warm, cosy apartment but by the love and affection that Satoru provides, he soon settles into life as a pet. Satoru is a bona fide “cat fanatic” with an optimistic outlook and a tragic past. When the two embark on a road trip in order to find Nana a new home – the reason for which we find out only later – the story begins in earnest. In their little silver van, cat and man visit Satoru’s old childhood friends, meet new animals, and see the country’s wonders. “At that moment, we were without doubt the greatest travellers in the world,” says Nana. “And I was the world’s greatest travelling cat.”

Hiro Arikawa’s novel, a bestseller in Japan, works because, despite the talking cat, it never pushes disbelief. Translated with a chatty, casual ease by Philip Gabriel – known for his work with Haruki Murakami – Nana’s voice is interspersed with that of a more generic narrator, which provides much-needed context and background. Importantly, each and every character we meet is depicted with a tender nuance: we care deeply not only about Satoru and Nana but his friends and family, too.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles starts whimsical and ends profound. Early on it seems as if Satoru is saving Nana; soon it becomes apparent that it is Nana who saves Satoru. During their journey – to the big wide sea, through forests of grass and over magical mountains – they both learn many lessons about the will to continue on and the power of friendship. Most important of all, they learn there are some things in life that you can’t control, but you can choose how you react to them – in Satoru’s case, no matter what, it’s with graciousness and a smile.  EA

Doubleday, 266pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA