Author: Hiro Arikawa
Publisher: Berkeley
ISBN: 978-0-451-49133-6

Hiro Arikawa's The Traveling Cat Chronicles (旅猫リポート) is an delightful novel on a couple levels. First, it has an interesting structure. Second, Philip Gabriel has done an impressive job of rendering Arikawa's Japanese into English. (Gabriel has also translated Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault and four Haruki Murakami novels including Kafka on the Shore, so he's got some chops.) Third, as a small book—about 5.5" x 7.5"—it is a pleasure to hold.

The novel begins "I am a cat. As yet I have no name," which is the opening sentence of Natsume Soseki's 1906 novel I Am a Cat. Soseki's novel is a satire on Meiji upper-middle-class society. The Traveling Cat Chronicles is a very different animal. The cat who narrates much of the novel is a stray who is adopted by a young man, Satoru, after the cat is hit by a car. By the time of the accident, the cat and Satoru had established a relationship of sorts because Satoru allowed the cat to sleep on his van's hood and has been feeding him.

Once he adopts the cat, Satoru names him "Nana" because, from the top, his tail "looks like nana—the number seven." Because the character for nana is , I have trouble visualizing this, particularly because Satoru's earlier cat had two marks on its face that resembled the character eight—八—and was therefore named Hachi—8. Maybe the tail is the Arabic 7. In any case Nana it is. 

Satoru's landlord does not allow pets, so "Satoru moved with me to a new place in the same town. Going to all that trouble to move just for the sake of one cat—well, maybe I shouldn't say this, being a cat myself, but that was one fired-up cat lover."

After five idyllic years, Satoru hits the road in the silver van to find one of his friends who will take Nana. It's not clear until late in the novel why Satoru wants to give Nana up. But after Nana narrates the first chapter describing how he and Satoru connected, Arikawa shifts to a third person point of view to tell the story of Kosuke Sawada, a school chum of Satoru's, who is trying to make it as a photographer and who is separated from his wife. Satoru and Nana visit, we learn about the boys' childhood adventures, about Satoru's devotion to Hachi, and, in first-person POV, Nana's take on the relationship and its history.  Kosuke cannot adopt Nana, so Satoru and Nana travel on to the farm of Daigo Yoshimine.

Similar structure. Third person POV to convey information Nana cannot know: "About three days after Yoshimine had arrived home, both his parents, surprisingly came home from work early. His mother cooked them dinner, a rare thing, and the three of them sat down together to eat." It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that his parents are getting divorced. This material is interspersed with Nana's first-person observations. And although a cat is a good animal to have on a farm, Satoru again takes off with Nana.

The third stop with a similar structure is with Shusuke Sugi and his wife Chikako who run a bed and breakfast that accepts pets. They too have a history with their high school friend Satoru and we learn more about him and the relationship between the three of them. (Satoru was sweet on Chikako.) They, however, already have an elderly cat and a young rambunctious dog. Here's Nana's first encounter with the dog: "Every single hair on my body was now standing on end. If you're going to pick a fight with Satoru, then I—a cat with a strong sense of pride—am not going to just sit here and take it! If you don't want that nose of yours cut to shreds, then apologize right this instant, you mangy mutt!" Satoru again cannot bear to part with Nana, however, and they end up in Hokkaido with Satoru's aunt and where the book comes to it's moving conclusion.

I mentioned Gabriel's translation, which manages to give Nana a recognizable cat-like attitude. For example, here's Satoru at the beginning greeting Nana who has been sleeping on his van:

"Do you always sleep there?" he asked

I suppose so. Do you have a problem with that?

"You're really cute, do you know that?"

So they tell me.

"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.

The Traveling Cat Chronicles will be catnip for readers who are interested in Japanese fiction, or who like cats, or who want to know more about contemporary Japanese society, or all three.