Author: Sosuke Natsukawa
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Reviewer: Aditi Yadav
Japan is conspicuously obsessed with cats. From the mythical Makeni-neko to Hello Kitty and Doraemon, cat worship overflows to cat cafés, salons, temples and even cat islands. Japanese literature is no exception to cat love. Natsume Soseki, the father of the modern novel in Japan, is well known for his satire I Am a Cat. Cats feature frequently in Murakami’s works. They have also purred their way as major characters of international bestsellers, including Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the Work, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, and Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Another addition to this bandwagon is The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa.
The novel’s title catches attention with odd yet intriguing juxtaposition of ‘cat’ and ‘books’. The story is about a high-school boy named Rintaro Natsuki. He is a recluse who loves to spend his time reading books in his grandfather’s second-hand bookshop. After the death of his grandfather, he is all by himself. Quite magically, an orange sassy cat named ‘Tiger’ visits him in the bookshop and seeks his help to recue books.
Through the fantasy portals of the bookshop, Rintaro and Tiger embark on a journey to labyrinths where they confront nasty pseudo-bibliophiles. The amusing cat quotes from The Little Prince and often gives sagacious, yet sharp advice to the young boy. Rintaro is up against overbearing and stubborn opponents. In the labyrinths, he meets ‘the imprisoner of books’, ‘the mutilator of books’, and ‘the seller of books’. Rintaro’s adversaries have locked up books as vintage items and killed their souls by headless summarization and merciless commodification.
The novel mocks the shallow times we live in, where people accessorize books rather than understanding them. It also questions the publishers and authors who succumb to the pressures of demand-supply cycle: “Who even reads Proust or Romain Rolland nowadays? Would any one cough up their hard earned money to buy books like those? You know what most readers are looking forward for in a book? Something easy, cheap and exciting. We have no choice but to adapt the form of books to suit those readers’ tastes.”
Rintaro faces the labyrinths with the firm belief in his grandfather’s philosophy, “Books have tremendous power”. The journey is that of self-realization. Coming out of his shell, Rintaro finds courage to stand up for himself and the ideals he believes in. He learns to engage with the world outside books, value relationships and more importantly how to be human: “No matter how much knowledge you cram into your head, unless you think with your own mind, walk with your own feet, the knowledge you acquire will never be anything more than empty and borrowed”.
Natsukawa, a doctor by profession, draws attention to the hikikomori syndrome in Japanese society where young men withdraw themselves from the society and confine themselves at home. As per 2019 official records of Japanese Government, this number is estimated to be about 1 million. The cat not only saves books but also the adolescent Rintaro from the ‘shut-in’ trap. As a hikikomori, Rintaro does not engage much with the outside world. The death of his grandfather affects him adversely. The cat’s missions jolt him out of his confinement. Guided by the cat and his grandpa’s memories, he begins to see the world in a new light, to reach out and help the living. ‘The cat’ stands as a metaphor for any ray of hope or a random stray straw that can help people in their tough and lonely times.
The story captures the reader’s imagination with its magical realism. It brings out the power of books – ‘empathy’ – how the souls of great books stand the test of time and connect people in different places. It’s a bibliophile’s joy to read a book that talks about other books. One realizes how reading transforms one’s interaction with the real world. “It’s all very well to read a book, but when you’ve finished, it’s time to set foot in the real world.”
A book that attempts to save the soul of reading, indeed.