A mag­i­cal Ja­panese novel full of fe­lines

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - MARTINA EVANS

IF CATS DIS­AP­PEARED FROM THE WORLD GENKI KAWA­MURA, trans­lated by Eric Sel­land Pi­cador, 144pp, £8.99

At the be­gin­ning of Genki Kawa­mura’s magic tale If Cats Dis­ap­peared from the World, we’re told that “In Ja­panese, there’s a whole other word for the food pets eat. It’s just not the same as hu­man food – we hu­mans are way fussier.” This was news to me, un­der pres­sure as I am ev­ery day to rus­tle up at least three in­no­va­tive meals for my cats. I won­dered again where I went wrong with my cat-rear­ing. But seem­ingly I haven’t gone wrong be­cause when the un­named pro­tag­o­nist’s cat Cab­bage be­gins to speak half­way through the novel, he re­veals he doesn’t like this food either.

Cab­bage’s voice is a lit­tle cliched; he speaks “like an up­per class gen­tle­man . . . in a pe­riod TV drama”. It’s hard to know what part trans­la­tion has played here as it is al­ways harder to trans­late a de­motic voice from one lan­guage to an­other. But the devil is in the de­tail and the devil is, of course, cen­tral to this story of mor­tal­ity, a blend of Faust with It’s a Won­der­ful Life.

There weren’t many sur­prises for this cat lover but it was lovely to find out even­tu­ally that that “whole other word” is “Neko-Manma”. It is when Kawa­mura uses spe­cific de­tails or tells us that the ori­gin of the Ja­panese word for cat, “neko”, is ac­tu­ally “‘a sleep­ing child’ (same sound, dif­fer­ent choice of kanji char­ac­ters)” that the novel surges to life.

When the nar­ra­tor, a young post­man is di­ag­nosed with an in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mour and com­mences his bucket list, it isn’t long be­fore the devil ap­pears in the form of a Dop­pel­gänger. In con­trast to our quiet nar­ra­tor who wears a white shirt and dark trousers, the devil is an out­go­ing char­ac­ter called Aloha who wears a Hawai­ian shirt. His bar­gain is suit­ably devil­ish; the post­man can buy an ex­tra day of life each time he al­lows the devil to make some­thing dis­ap­pear. The fiendish part of the bar­gain is that devil chooses. Cho­co­late is con­sid­ered first but when the devil de­vel­ops a taste for it him­self, they even­tu­ally set­tle on phones and this is where Kawa­mura be­comes in­ter­est­ing:

“As . . . years go by, phones will cease to ex­ist com­pletely. Like peb­bles on the road­side, they will start by go­ing un­no­ticed – un­til they dis­ap­pear com­pletely . . . the 107 peo­ple who met Aloha be­fore me must have made some­thing dis­ap­pear, but the rest of us haven’t no­ticed. It’s as if with­out you re­al­is­ing it, things you use in your every­day life, like your fa­vorite cof­fee cup or the new socks you just bought, could dis­ap­pear. And if you did re­alise, how­ever much you looked for them, you wouldn’t be able to find them. For all we know, there may be all kinds of things that have al­ready dis­ap­peared with­out our hav­ing no­ticed it, things that we’d as­sumed would al­ways be around.”

The re­cip­i­ent of his last phone call is his first girl­friend who works and lives in a movie theatre. When the girl­friend turns up, she has a list too – of all his fail­ings as a boyfriend. It seems an un­speak­ably cruel greet­ing for a dy­ing man but there is a sat­is­fy­ing ex­pla­na­tion which shows just how for­get­ful hu­mans can be. The story of their re­la­tion­ship, which worked best when they were on the phone, is touch­ingly re­alised.

But if the dis­ap­pear­ance of the phone was dif­fi­cult for our char­ac­ter to bear, the next item on the list is even harder: Aloha sug­gests movies and this is where the de­tails catch fire be­cause this char­ac­ter (and no doubt his cre­ator) adores the movies. He ex­plores a rich cat­a­logue be­fore even­tu­ally set­tling on Chap­lin’s Lime­light for his fi­nal view­ing.

This novel is haunted by movies all the way through, not just It’s a Won­der­ful Life with its flash­backs and life-ap­pre­ci­at­ing lessons. There is some­thing of Ozu’s great and touch­ing Tokyo Story here too. Ul­ti­mately the post­man has to learn to ap­pre­ci­ate both his par­ents al­though it is the son that will die be­fore his fa­ther here. Tokyo Story was in­flu­enced in its turn by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for To­mor­row and there is a strong sense of that cross-pol­li­na­tion so typ­i­cal of Ja­panese film in this tale with its Hawai­ian shirted-devil and litany of quotes from Hol­ly­wood movies and di­rec­tors.

Chap­lin’s is per­haps the clos­est to the novel’s in­ten­tion with its mix­ture of hu­mour and life lessons: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a com­edy in long-shot.” ■ Martina Evans is a poet and nov­el­ist. Her lat­est book Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is pub­lished by Car­canet

This novel is haunted by movies all the way through, not just It’s a Won­der­ful Life with its flash­backs and lifeap­pre­ci­at­ing lessons

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