Book Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel (Published by Doubleday in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★★★

This was my last read for 2018, and what a read it was.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of a stray cat turned pet, Nana, and his owner, Satoru. The story begins with how Nana becomes Satoru’s pet, and then fast-forwards to a few years later, where Satoru and Nana go on a road trip to visit old friends and to find a new home for Nana, for reasons the owner is unwilling to disclose. Narrated from both feline and human points of view, this novel is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, on grief, and on letting go. It’s a beautiful, poignant read that I would recommend to everyone, especially to cat lovers.

The story begins from the point of view of Nana, the cat. Nana is a gruff stray cat with an abundance of both sass and street smarts. Nana’s voice is distinctive from his first meeting with Satoru:

‘Is it okay if I stroke you?’

No, thanks. I batted one front paw at him in what I hoped to be a gently threatening way.

‘Aren’t you a stingy one,’ the man said, pulling a face.

Well, how would you like it if you were sleeping and somebody came by and rubbed you all over?

Eventually, Nana comes to live with Satoru after the latter saves him from an accident. Even then, though, Nana isn’t very demonstrative of his affection for his owner. Five years later, for instance, when Satoru announces that he intends to let Nana go, Nana simply says:

Life, be it human or feline, doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.

If I had to give up living with Satoru, I’d just have to go back to the way I was five years ago. . . . I could go back to being a stray tomorrow, no problem.

I wouldn’t have lost anything. Just gained the name Nana, and the five years I’d spent with Satoru.

Already, though, under that gruff, stoic voice, there is a hint of sadness at having to part with Satoru. It seems Nana is deliberately minimising the sentimentality of their imminent parting, which actually belies the depth of emotion he is trying to conceal. 

Following Satoru’s statement, they embark on a road trip to meet up with potential new owners for Nana. All these potential owners were Satoru’s friends in his youth, and we meet them in the order that Satoru had become friends with them. Each chapter unfolds from the point of view of the friend, told in third person, and the point of view of Nana, and it shifts from past to present time. This kind of storytelling effectively portrays the mystery of how friendships form, grow, and finally change over time, as people drift apart and begin to live different lives. The poignancy of these narratives are interspersed with Nana’s – and the other animals’ – humorous commentary on the relationships and personalities of their masters. The effect of this sort of storytelling on me was that I’d be chuckling over a few sentences, and then just a mere paragraphs down I’d be teary-eyed and overcome with emotion.

Another thing I loved about this book was the simple, clean prose. I only noticed how beautiful this was at Chapter 3 1/2, “Between Friends”, during which Satoru and Nana travel through the Hokkaido countryside. The landscape truly came alive with the prose. I looked up the pampas grass and the purple-and-yellow wildflower fields that they passed through, and it must have looked something like this.

What I found so moving about the prose describing the landscape was the feeling of spaciousness – the feeling of the vastness of nature against the smallness of the human (and feline) life. Reading this part put me in a quiet, contemplative mood.

This chapter also served as a turning point, where both Satoru and Nana finally come clean about how deeply they feel their bond as owner and pet, and how inseparable they’ve become. It reaffirms the value of the companionship between human beings and animals, and how it may be as important as the bonds we also have with other people.

From this point in the story onward, I was more or less reduced to a leaky faucet. I kept having to put the book down to wipe my eyes in order to keep reading (and to keep from getting the pages wet). Afterwards, when I’d finally finished the book, I had to put it down and take a deep breath to savor the words of the ending and to linger just a little while longer in the quiet, beautiful world of The Travelling Cat Chronicles.

It is a wonderful, poignant book. Would definitely recommend to everyone.

My story will be over soon.

But it’s not something to be sad about.

As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another.

Remembering those who went ahead.

Remembering those who will follow after.

And someday, we will meet all those people again, out beyond the horizon.

Read from December 28 – 29, 2018 | Goodreads Account