Thoughts: The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel

Long time no see…

I didn’t mean for my break to go on this long! I was powering through to the end of a round of edits on a story, and then I sort of needed a break from all writing, and idiotically I used that time to read intensely, increasing my backlog, and then I had a cold, and now I’m back.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles was a Christmas present from my dad, who knows me very well, aware that I love both cats and Japanese literature. This is probably going to get spoilery, so you have been warned.

This isn’t my first time at the Japanese-books-about-cats rodeo, and I went into it telling myself I wouldn’t get attached, but…

I mean come on, it’s a book narrated by a cat.

The writing style was quite translatory, I admit, and I feel like a traitor saying it, but there’s no point in writing these things if I’m not going to be honest. The book is set in Japan, and there were some awkward concepts to gloss, and in general this was done well. I don’t know how much of this will come across to a reader who isn’t familiar with Japan – as a Japanese translator by trade it’s pretty much impossible for me to read a book translated from Japanese and not look out for certain specific things, even if it’s just to see how someone else has dealt with them and steal tricks for my own work.

That said, I think Nana’s (the cat’s) voice was basically perfect. There’s something about Japanese that just works for a grumpy, capricious cat. It’s like the language was written for cats. And Gabriel’s at his best when he’s being quirky, staying away from the generic tone and turns of phrase it’s easy to fall into when translating from Japanese. Nana’s personality shines through, his street origins and inherent cat-haughtiness mingled together in his language. And I could imagine what was going on from the outside as well – when Nana visits the sea for the first time, I could imagine seeing this crazy guy introducing his terrified cat to the ocean.

Satoru, Nana’s human companion, comes through strongly between the lines as well, his easy goodness obvious even when Nana’s being catty (ha ha). And not just him, but the other human secondary characters are all fleshed out, each with their own problems and relationships with Satoru. The structure is quite fairytale – cat and positively saintly human go on a road trip, meet three old friends with problems, help fix those problems??? – but the book did well at making the old friends more than just their problems, and made their problems feel quite real, not straying into allegory, which is what I was sort of expecting. And Nana’s perspective gives it all an interesting new angle – we get to judge everyone around Satoru from this privileged, intimate position that no other human could ever hope to attain.

Satoru’s aunt really struck me as well. She appears sort of on the margins, and alone of all the human characters, doesn’t know how to deal with Satoru. Everyone else engages heart and soul with him, whether in uncomplicated friendship or jealousy or guilt, but Aunt Noriko remains distant, unable to get close. The sort of spiralling frustration that I can relate to.

Okay, not too many spoilers, but I will say that the ending might get you. Bring tissues.

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