February 2014

John Wilmes

fiction

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Salland

Constructed from seemingly disparate essays and micro-narratives, Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat is a curious new Japanese translation. Working with many of the same themes as his previous English translation (For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, published in 2008), the work pours the flesh of fiction into what may make more sense as poetry or memoir.

The result is an admirable, if not entirely cohesive, injection into a genre starved for well-exposed originality. Hiraide's contemplations on the nature of fate and existentialism include geography, geometry, baseball, and Machiavelli as metaphors. The titular cat, Chibi, is something of a connective tissue for the narrator's wonderings on these topics -- the financial and career up-downs of his and his wife's life are, at most, cursory to the reader's concerns, and their marriage is utterly without conflict -- and the book is at its best this way. Chibi acts as a literally fluffy introductory point to a wonderfully rangy and discursive mind.

Hiraide is largely wise to the fact that Chibi acts primarily as symbol -- alternately as a shield and flashlight for the life his narrator lives. The cat's sudden presence in his house and marriage illuminates the Sisyphean for him, as he convinces his wife that they should both quit their more workaday jobs to pursue dreams of writing -- "the act of writing," he waxes, "also crosses borders indiscriminately," recalling Chibi's nomadic wanderings. The feline's appearances also act as emotional defense for the couple as they adjust to a less financially reliable life.

But the book's closing act, in which more conventional fiction concerns of drama and empathy take more volume -- and in which Chibi is supposed to be something like "real" to us -- falters some. Certain passages land with a kind of sentiment that Hiraide is not a natural with. Take this one: "Chibi stared intently with her deep green eyes at the clear liquid flowing from my wife's eyes and rolling down her cheeks -- these human things called tears." This is one of several (thankfully outlying) instances in which the book reinforces rather than eschews the saccharine promise of its cover and premise.

Such a promise -- fulfilled or not -- may well pull more readers to Hiraide's work, and if it does its increased availability in English would certainly be a welcome development. His nimbleness with subject is elite -- let's just hope that, next time around, he's less taken with ostensibly requisite dramaturgy in his weaving. There is no need for crying puppets amongst his otherwise beautiful amalgams. In Hiraide's hands, ideas themselves are dramatic enough.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Salland
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811221504
144 pages