Saturday, November 05, 2016

A Book Report Two Years (and a half) In the Making

This week I finished reading the novel, “If Cat’s Disappeared from the World.”  That’s the translation of the title, which is actually, 世界から猫が消えたなら。That’s the original title in Japanese, which is the language the book is written in.  
It’s the first time in the History of Me where I’ve read an entire work of fiction written in another language.  Without pictures.  
I’m feeling pretty accomplished right now.  Feeling pretty smart.  Wanting to pat myself on the back a little bit.  Hold a second…
There.  I actually did it.  Took a moment to pat myself on the back while sitting in the library writing this entry.  Five times, real quick.  Any more would be bragging.  
I’ve decided to do something else I haven’t done in quite some time.  Not since I was a student.  And that’s write a book report about the experience.  But I guess I probably gave that away from the title.  Oh, well…
The Story
The main character in “If Cats…” is a thirty-something year old postal delivery man.  He is not married.  His mother has passed away.  He is estranged from his father and hasn’t spoken to him in years.  Not since his mother died.  His only companion is a pet cat, named “Cabbage,” his mother’s cat whom he took over custody of when she died.  
One day, he goes to the doctor and is told that the headaches he’s been experiencing are caused by a brain tumor.  Cancer.  Well advanced.  The doctor’s estimate is that he has maybe up to six months to live, though he could go sooner.  
Depressed, the postman takes the rest of the day off work, returns home and throws himself on his sofa.  With his cat meowing at him in a concerned manner, he falls asleep.  
When he wakes up, there is someone else in the room with him.  Someone waring Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian short-sleeved shirt, with sunglasses perched on top of his head.  Someone who, except for the tropical outfit (despite it being cold outside) looks exactly like him.  
Getting up and questioning this familiar looking stranger, he discovers that it’s the Devil.  Not “a devil.”  The “Devil.”  God’s enemy.  And he’s arrived to tell the postman that the doctor didn’t give him the correct information.  He’s not going to live for another six months.  He’s going to die sooner than that.  Like, tomorrow.  But don’t worry, he has a deal, a proposal to make.
And that is this: All the postman has to do is pick something, something important in the world for the Devil to make disappear, and for every thing he picks he’ll be granted an additional day of life.  
That is how the story opens.  And for the next week we follow the man character as he picks things to make disappear, sometimes under prompting of the Devil, whom he calls “Aloha” because of his outfit, and deals with the world that comes about with that thing no longer being there.  
What happens is the postman, whose name we never learn in the story, which is told entire from his first person perspective, discovers how his choices relate to the people and experiences he had that were so important for him in his life.  The disappearance of telephones brings into focus how talking over the phone brought him and his previous girlfriend together.  He rediscovers how his love of movies shaped him as an adolescent when their existence is erased from the world.  And once clocks, watches and all other timepieces are gone, he finds himself forced to confront his feelings about his father, whom he has not spoken to in years, who ran a watch repair shop in their home.  
In the end, when Aloha points at Cabbage and suggest that cats be the next thing to make vanish, the postman ends up deciding that it’s going too far.  Now sensitized to what his choices are taking from his life, and recalling how the family cats, Cabbage and his predecessor, Lettuce, helped hold the family together, the postman decides to not make cats or anything else disappear, choosing to accept is own demise.  
The story ends with the postman riding his bike, Cabbage sitting in the basket up front, to his father’s house to spend his last day with him.  
I liked this story.  I remember English teachers from decades gone by telling me and my classmates to not just say that, but they never said I couldn’t start with that declaration.  
And I did like this story.  It was suggested to me by one of the members of my Japanese Language Exchange group that the best thing to dd in practicing reading in Japanese was to pick something that you would want to read in English.  And when I heard about this novel, the idea of the story fascinated me.  And to keep me working on it for two and half years, I’d have to say that the author, Genki Kawamura, did a pretty good job of keeping my interest.  
First, I enjoyed his use of humor.  This is not a comedy.  There are some very sad, dark scenes in it.  But there are quick little moments where the tension is broken enough for you to bear them.  
A number of these moments are when the postman is dealing with Aloha.  When he first meets him, for example, seeing how he’s dressed, and wondering why he came dressed like that when it’s cold and wet outside, then realizing, “Oh, yeah…  He’s come from someplace warmer.”  Another moment, when Aloha is trying to get the postman to pick something to disappear and sees a box on his living room table.  
“What’s this?”  Aloha the Devil picks up the box.
“It’s snacks.  Chocolate.”  He describes a well known Japanese snack, a mushroom shaped cookie dipped in chocolate.   
Aloha samples one and immediate decides he can’t make THIS disappear from the world.  It’s just too tempting.  
Some of my enjoyment was unintended as it came from my discovery of Japanese idioms.  The most memorable was when the postman is making himself breakfast and decides to have “Eyeballs Fried.”  This is the literal translation of the Japanese term for eggs, sunny-side up.  I think I’m going to make a point of ordering them the next time I go to Japan.  
Mainly, it was how often I found myself drawn into the main character’s perspective that kept me reading the story, sometimes one painfully translated sentence at a time.  Toward the end, there is a scene where the postman remembers how the family acquired Cabbage, after their first cat, Lettuce, died.  The postman argued against keeping the stray kitten that looked so much like their first cat, leading to the similar names, after seeing how much the lost hurt his mother.  The cat was very likely to die before she would, he thought to himself, and he didn’t want to see her put through that pain.  
This scene very much reminded me of my own past.  My cat, Tybalt, died several years ago after a long, painful bout with renal failure.  I remember feeling the same way the postman described regarding his mom, and not wanting to go through that feeling again.  
I find myself considering what his father said to tip the scales.  It was his vote, to keep the cat, that brought him into the family.  He was also the one to name him.  “Cats die.  And people die, too.  We’re the same.  Once you realize that, it’s all alright.”  A stoic man’s way of saying that you can’t keep pain from coming by removing the things you enjoy from your life.  

Which is the whole point of the novel.  What is the value of life, if it has all thing we cherish or find important, removed from it.  In the end, the postman realizes that it’s value of each day that makes life valuable, and one day spend with someone you love is worth almost any amount of time without them. 


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