Lovely Mum bought me Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, I assume because it had such a beautiful cover. The cat’s eyes stare up at you beseechingly in teal foil (the above picture doesn’t do it any justice) and when you leave the book on a table in a dark room they are capable of a slightly unnerving flash when the moonlight hits them.
I love cats, for all the reasons dog-lovers often despise them. I love their haughtiness, their indifference to attempts to suck up to them, the way they sometimes look at you as if to say, “What on earth are you doing, cretin?” So you’d think I’d love Hiraide’s celebration of a cat who came to visit him and his wife in their small guest house. But I didn’t. I wanted to, I did. But this book, for me, was hard work.
Perhaps I’m out of practice with reading difficult books. Perhaps I’m lazy. I tried to apply myself to it, but it always felt like work. When I got home after a long day I didn’t want to pick it up. I couldn’t lose myself in it. Perhaps it’s that I like to dive into people’s lives when I read, understand what makes them tick, and I didn’t really learn anything about the author (I assume from the biographical note that this is somewhat autobiographical) or his wife (her speech is reported but she’s an otherwise opaque, shadowy character) when reading this. I know, it’s about the cat, not them, but it’s hard to really understand what the cat meant to them if you don’t know anything about what makes them tick. It’s hard (at least for me) to care. Since we can’t get an insight into the cat’s thoughts or feelings either, it felt like there was a kind of void at the heart of this book.
Sometimes the prose is beautiful and poetically descriptive and in those places the book feels like a lovely, refined artefact of love. But other times Hiraide gets bogged down in describing in painstaking detail the angles of the alley behind his house and ruminating about the meaning of ‘lightning capture’ versus ‘capture of lightning’. Perhaps it’s a matter of certain things getting lost in translation from the Japanese (and indeed there are some interesting translation notes at the back of the book that support this theory). And of course, not every book ever written needs to be easy and fun. But I found it a bit self-indulgent and humourless if I’m honest, and I just never felt like I was inside the writing. It was an extremely short book but it still felt a bit like a chore. I felt like a cat scratching at the door of a dark, possibly empty house. Perhaps Takashi Hiraide’s writing is just not for me.