Translated by: Philip Gabriel
Published: 2nd November 2017 (originally 2012)
Genre: General Fiction
Nana, a cat, is devoted to Satoru, his owner. So when Satoru decides to go on a roadtrip one day to find him a new home, Nana is perplexed. They visit Satoru’s old friends from his school days and early youth.
His friends may have untidy emotional lives but they are all animal lovers, and they also wonder why Satoru is trying to give his beloved cat away. Until the day Nana suddenly understands a long-held secret about his much-loved owner, and his heart begins to break.
It is hard to describe this book as anything other than unique and completely special. While on the surface a straightforward and fairly whimsical story, it truly captivates with beautiful narratives that stir a vast range of powerful emotions through the loving and endearing portrayal of a relationship between humans and their pets.
Throughout a journey that is split into four parts, the storytelling is impeccable and never ceases to be immersive, often evoking the feel of a fable. There are dual timelines that bring considerable depth and help you to connect to the human characters a lot more as it guides you through the events of their lives. The eventual outcome is so moving that I was tearing up and had tears in my eyes by the end.
Nana is a stray cat who hunts for himself and likes to reside under the shelter of a silver van. The vehicle’s owner Satoru is a cat lover and comes over to pet Nana nearly every day. The two develop an understanding and a close bond, so when Nana suffers an injury to his leg after being struck by a car, Satoru takes him in.
When Nana recovers, he elects to stay with Satoru as his pet, as he is now fully devoted to him. But five years later, he is in the passenger seat of the van and being taken on a road trip. For some unknown reason, Satoru can no longer keep Nana and so they tour Japan together looking for somebody else who can take him and provide the same level of adoring care.
Along the way, they meet people who played an important role in Satoru’s fascinating and at times tragic childhood, encounters which shed light on human thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile, Nana discovers the sea and gets his first close-up view of Mount Fuji, but he also learns of the secret that Satoru has been hiding for months.
The four parts follow a similar pattern, beginning with Satoru and Nana setting out on the next phase of their trip. It then goes into the past and examines the foundations of the relationship between Satoru and the next character the book introduces, before returning to the present. Though simple on the face of it, this was hugely effective and every time it conjured a wonderfully poignant, bittersweet story.
Almost everything is exceptional, but the highlight for me was the companionship that existed between Satoru and Nana. It is the kind of thing that not only speaks to people who love cats, but just about anyone that appreciates the connection we can sometimes share with our pets. They have such an understanding, and that served to make the ending even more impactful.
Most of the present day storyline is narrated by Nana, and reading from a cat’s point of view was a really fun experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. His reactions to certain things made me laugh and I liked how he communicated with other animals, but all round he was just witty and intelligent with a certain degree of craftiness.
As for Satoru, he is an absolutely brilliant character. It is hard to emphasise just how special he is, such is the kindness and selflessness that he shows both as a child and an adult, in spite of the difficult events that he endures in his life. Needless to say, I felt so invested in him and the way he cared for Nana as well as Hachi, a cat he previously owned.
The people who Satoru visits all have interesting and complex stories to tell. I was particularly taken by Noriko, who is superbly developed from someone who is well meaning but clumsy with words into a warmer and more caring individual. Then we have a married couple who own a pet-friendly bed and breakfast, and share a multi-layered dynamic.
I enjoyed seeing aspects of Japan and its culture depicted in the book, which moves at a pretty fast pace. Along with the characters, what makes it such a great read is the concept and the narrative structure, and this is executed so perfectly in the writing. It is the ideal balance between the delightful novelty and humour of Nana’s perspective, and the more serious things that are still conveyed with a sense of charm.
Overall, this is a book that will stay with me for some time. When you consider that a lot of the story is told by a cat, you may be forgiven for thinking that it is mostly fun and frivolous, but right at the centre of it is something deep and incredibly powerful. From present day to the past tense, it is absorbing, heartrending, and immensely thoughtful.
Hiro Arikawa has written a diverse range of fiction, winning the Dengeki Novel Prize for new writers in 2003 for her debut Shio No Machi: Wish On My Precious. Her next book The Library War also won acclaim in Japan, while she has written extensively on the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.
However, The Travelling Cat Chronicles was her first international hit, selling over a million copies worldwide and seeing it made into a live-action film.
Philip Gabriel is a professor in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. He has translated numerous Japanese books into English, including those by Haruki Murakami. He won the Sasakawa Prize in 2001.
A relatively short book, but an absolutely brilliant one. I lived every page of it and fell in love with Satoru and Nana. If you read it, make sure you have tissues nearby, as it is quite emotional.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐