This week I bought my first Christmas present of the year. I was really pleased with it. Then as I gazed at it I realised the first present I’d bought this year was for my brother & sister-in-law’s cats. From my cats. I’m gifting between cats. That’s who I’ve become.
So I’m sharing my pain as mad cat lady with the interwebs. But I also love dogs, its just I can’t convince one to live with me in my tiny London flat. So in a spirit of inclusivity, and a rejection of the idea that you are either a dog-person or a cat-person, I’m looking at one novel about a feline, and another featuring a sarcastic dog.
Firstly, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (trans. Eric Selland). This short novel is a delicate, sensitive study of the unspoken ties that bind. A small stray cat, adopted by the neighbours, arrives in the house of the narrator and his wife. They live a quiet life, he a poet and she a proof-reader, and the cat brings a spirit of unpredictability into their lives:
“Chibi’s dependence would manifest itself in unexpected ways, even while performing acts of incredible athletic skill. Casting aside the Ping-Pong ball, she turned about at an acute angle, yet in the next moment she had placed her tiny paw on the head of a toad concealed in the shade of one of landscape rocks. Then just as suddenly she flew to the other side of the garden, extending one of her front legs to slip into a clump of bushes.”
The novel is a mix of the closely observed and the philosophical/metaphysical:
“When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug from a prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.”
Hiraide captures how animals bring their own energy, changing dynamics in relationships, affecting homes and the people therein. They are catalysts (no pun intended) and their full effects can be both quiet and far-reaching:
“I opened the window and welcomed in the guest, accompanied by the winter sunrise, and the mood inside the house was restored. Chibi was our first New Year’s visitor. They call the visitors who go around to all the houses on New Year’s Day to wish everyone happy new year ‘pilgrims’.”
You don’t have to like cats to enjoy The Guest Cat. Chibi could be any animal or transforming external force; it is her impact rather than her cat-ness that Hiraide is interested in. The Guest Cat’s story is one of love, change, resilience and loss.
“’See, I told you. She’s our girl.’
…or so my wife said, although she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honoured guest bestowing her presence upon us.”
Here are my two, utterly engaged with the whole idea of buying their cousins a gift, and with being part of a blog post:
It’s quite hard to find a dog in literature which doesn’t end in a way which has me in floods of tears. Thankfully, the full title of the well-known comic novel by Jerome K Jerome is Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog! It is a blessed relief to tell you that fox terrier Montmorency makes it through in one piece. Thank goodness, because look at this face:
“To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.”
J and his friends George and Harris are hypochondriacs who are convinced they all have terrible diseases. In order to recouperate they decide to sail a boat along the Thames to Oxford. J’s dog is not impressed:
“The only one who was not struck with the suggestion was Montmorency. He never did care for the river, did Montmorency.
‘It’s all very well for you fellows,’ he says; ‘you like it, but I don’t. There’s nothing for me to do. Scenery is not my line, and I don’t smoke. If I see a rat, you won’t stop; and if I go to sleep, you get fooling about with the boat, and slop me overboard. If you ask me I call the whole thing bally foolishness.’
We were three to one, however, and the motion was carried.”
Usually I’m not keen on anthropomorphism, but with Montmorency it really works. He acts as a slightly detached commentator on his three bally foolish companions and never loses his dogginess – he remains very much the fox terrier. The four of them head off to the water and as anyone who has read the novel will know, very little happens yet much hilarity ensues. The three men are absolutely useless with any practical considerations, such as putting all their food into one disgusting stew:
“Towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say”
I love the idea of a sarcastic dog. Three Men in a Boat was apparently first intended as a travel guide, which seems astonishing for such an unrelentingly funny book. Attempts to act as a guide remain, but the humour always forces its way in:
“From Abingdon to Nuneham Courtenay is a lovely stretch. Nuneham Park is well worth a visit, It can be viewed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The house contains a fine collection of pictures and curiosities and the grounds are very beautiful. The Pool under Sandford lasher, just behind the lock, is a good place to drown yourself in.”
By some miracle they make it to Oxford, and Montmorency shares my love of the city of dreaming spires:
“We spent two very pleasant days in Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had gone to heaven.”
I must admit though, I’ve never fought a dog any time I’ve been to Oxford. It’s also safe to say he would not approve of the theme of this post:
“When Montmorency meets a cat, the whole street knows about it; and there is enough bad language wasted in ten seconds to last an ordinary respectable man all his life, with care.”
To end, a reminder that the dividing line between cat & dog may not be as clear-cut as we think: