The Google search page for Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles claims that “93% liked this book”. Notwithstanding the vagueness of this statistic (93% of whom, exactly?), it sounds about right: this is a very likable novel. Likability is, I’d say, its chief characteristic.
Japanese bachelor Satoru befriends a stray cat who he calls Nana; when Nana is hit by a car, Satoru takes Nana in permanently, much to the cat’s surprise. After a period of happy coexistence, Satoru and Nana embark on a mysterious road trip, visiting a number of Satoru’s friends and acquaintances. It quickly becomes apparent that Satoru is looking for a new home for Nana; why he wants to do this remains opaque for some time, although any moderately savvy reader will figure it out fairly early on.
The novel’s partly narrated by Nana, whose voice is world-weary and yet also somehow naïve. It is of course his and Satoru’s devotion to each other that forms the core of the novel: the mismatch between their perspectives generates a sense almost of tragedy, as Nana bumbles happily through life while we intuit from Satoru that something is seriously wrong. It’s an effective tactic, but not a subtle one; and in fact the entire novel feels like that, a text carefully tuned to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. It’s all a little…mechanical.
A big part of what made the novel feel so artificial to me is Nana’s narration and behaviour, which are both fundamentally un-catlike. His frame of reference is too human: he does not experience the world moment to moment as animals do, living in the here and now, but as a series of events moving from past to future, as humans do. The concepts he thinks with are fundamentally human ones:
The least they could do would be to stuff those [cat] toys with white meat. But could I take this complaint to the pet-toymakers? Stop worrying about what the owners think and pay some attention to your real clients. Your real clients are folk like me.
In this passage Nana is demonstrating that he understands how business (a uniquely human concept) works, and also that he thinks of Satoru as specifically his owner; that’s not how real cats relate to the humans they live with. I feel like the novel would be a more honest and more emotionally devastating experience if it had had the courage not to anthropomorphise Nana.
And yet I’m pretty sure I cried at the end of it; which I suppose is a decent indication that Arikawa achieved what she was aiming to achieve with it. It’s a novel perfectly calculated to please: one to like, but not one to love.