Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles

As a prelude to my reading list for the Japanese Literature challenge I read the novella "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles" by Kij Johnson, which can be read here (it is 64 pages). My appetite is now whetted for reading The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson as well as I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume; cats also frequently figure in the fiction of Haruki Murakami. Does anyone know of the cultural significance of cats in Japan? Is it just that they are a symbol of good luck or a more deep-rooted devotion?

I am a passionate cat-lover and adore reading about cats in fiction and one of my favourite novellas is "The Cat" by Colette. "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles" is set in Imperial China and is about Small Cat who lives in a garden in the capital city with other female felines (Tom-cats visit) and share their lives together:

The cats shared another thing: their fudoki. The fudoki was the collection of stories about all the cats who had lived in a place. It described what made it a home, and what made the cats a family. Mothers taught their kittens the fudoki. If the mother died too soon, the other cats, the aunts and cousins, would teach the kittens. A cat with no fudoki was a cat with no family, no home, and no roots.

Small Cat's fudoki -her sense of self- is the essence of the story; when an earthquake and subsequent fire destroy her home and no other cats are left but her, Small Cat makes a pilgrimage to the North in search of other cats belonging to her fudoki. Her journey of a thousand miles is from the capital (still Tokyo?) to the North, beyond Mt Fuji (which is only 60 miles from Tokyo) to provinces that do not know cats and see them as demons where she encounters a Monk, a Bear Hunter, a Bear, Snow, cats belonging to a different fudoki, and a ferry journey for the first time. At her journey's end Small Cat has made her own fudoki - The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles - and realises that stories are not just told and learned but are made by ourselves. Anyone who loves cats, mythology, and the nature of stories will enjoy this lovely novella.

Everyone had a fudoki, Small Cat knew now. Everyone had their own stories, and the stories of their families and ancestors. There were adventures and love stories, or tricks and jokes and funny things that had happened or disasters. Everyone wanted to tell the stories, and to know where they fit in their own fudokis. She was not that different.

Claire from kiss a cloud described the entrancing, "solemnity and the subtlety" of Japanese literature and I think that is a beautiful way of describing the characteristic nature of its canon. The lyrical nature of Japanese literature in translation is beautiful and surreal, like a walk through cherry blossom.

I suspect that this short story is a shorter revision of Johnson's second novel, Fudoki, which Nymeth reviews here. For anyone wanting to read another Japanese short story about cats then this one by Haruki Murakami is good although it is practically identical to the middle section of his novel, Sputnik Sweetheart.

Some favourite passages:

It seemed to snow every few days, sometimes clumps heavy enough to splat when they landed,
sometimes tiny flakes so light they tickled her whiskers. Small Cat didn’t like snow: it looked like feathers, but it just turned into water when it landed on her.

There was not much for them to do but talk and sing, so they talked and sang a lot. They shared fairy tales and ghost stories. They told funny stories about themselves or the people they knew.
People had their own fudoki, Small Cat realized, though there seemed to be no order to the stories, and she didn’t see yet how they made a place home. They sang love-songs and funny songs about foolish adventurers, and Small Cat realized that songs were stories as well.


Ana S. said...

I'm so glad you liked it! I've been wondering about the relationship between this story and the novel Fudoki too. I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but even if it's similar I'm sure I'll enjoy it. Her writing is just so lovely.

PS: love the lolcat :D

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a beautiful review! It's the very first one for the JLC3, and quite an outstanding one at that. I am a recent convert to being a cat lover ;) as my son's girlfriend gave him a tiger cat this winter, and my husband rescued a long haired kitty this spring. Now I love them!!! So, I am too am entranced by their appearance in Japanese literature. I know that Murakami said there was no particular significante to cats in Kafka on The Shore, he just likes them. But, I, too want to read I Am A Cat, and now this one that you posted on. Really, it's a very enticing review.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I am glad I read it; I love her writing style - it's almost like a fairy tale in its simplicity of language but thematic complexity.

I love locats and thought it appropriate :P

bellezza, thank you! I'm glad to start us off.
I think I read likewise about Murakami just liking cats but they do seem to be popular. Not that I am complaining, just curious.
Welcome to the world of cat lovers! I think there is nothing quite like them; they are fascinating animals.

Green Road said...

Ok, I'm convinced to join the Japanese Literature Challenge. I've got Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and I think I'll try for Norwegian Wood, but I don't want to read too much Murukami. Which books would you recommend?

Paperback Reader said...

Swati, the challenge itself is only one book so anything extra is a bonus! bellezza has a long list of suggestions on her site. I would suggest some Banana Yoshimoto too; Kitchen is the only one I've read yet so I'd suggest that! Also read the novella I reviewed if you have a chance.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of this and it sounds intriguing. I have always wondered about cats in Japanese literature. Though as a cat lover I found Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore' quite, quote disturbing. I have also noticed I have not got my read copy anymore, oh where has it gone?

Paperback Reader said...

I hate misplacing books, Simon! I am also quite anxious now to read Kafka on the Shore as well as Norwegian Wood. I love cats in any literature but their appearance in Japanese lit is definitely intriguing.

mee said...

I'm thinking to read I am a Cat too. I've actually been eying that book for a while now. It's funny how a while ago nobody seemed to ever mention the book and now with JLC3 suddenly a few people seem to plan to read it. (I just posted my post for JLC3 today.)

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Mee, glad to hear you're joining the JL3 challenge too. I first came across I am a Cat in a bookshop a couple of years ago and was instantly intrigued; it was too expensive to buy at the time but I bought it discounted at a later date online and am looking forward to finally reading it. Lesser-known works also peak my interest.

Crafty Green Poet said...

This sounds like a wonderful charming book. I'll look out for it.

I really enjoyed I am a Cat when I read it a few years ago.

I love the Lolcat photo in this post!

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Crafty Green Poet, thanks for commenting.

Actually the link to the novella is provided here and you can read it online; I hope you enjoy it if you do.

I am pleased to hear a good review for I am a Cat; I'm excited about reading it.

This lolcat photo is one my favourites; it's so cute.

ds said...

Hi! I found you through Bellezza's challenge, and I wish I could answer your question about Japanese culture and cats. I had a student from Japan who hated them, yet, as you point out, they feature prominently in Haruki Murakami's work. Sometimes I think someone could write a dissertation on his use of cats!(I've read the story you cite here, and you're right, it does echo in Sputnik Sweetheart).
Anyway, thank you for this wonderful review. I will keep an eye out for "I am a Cat" and "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles." I love those creatures--how can they possibly do any wrong?

Paperback Reader said...

ds, thanks for commenting! I would also love it if someone would write a dissertation or book on the significance of cats in Japanese Literature - perhaps someone already has. I am a cat fanatic and love reading about them; it possibly explains my love for Japanese Lit, as well as its wonderful surreal quality.