Translated by Eric Selland
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Who doesn’t deal with the devil every now and again? Or perhaps a god from your chosen religion, for the more saintly among us? Or just any form of non-supernatural, psychological trading in the privacy of your own mind? At risk of branding myself as the resident eccentric reviewer, I know that I do: I’ll be kinder to people if my Victoria sponge comes out of the oven even vaguely not burned, I’ll do my laundry – and the flatmate’s, too – if my cold goes away overnight, and I might even study harder for the next course if this exam is a miraculous pass.
For the protagonist of Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World such trading is very real and, quite literally, a life and death situation. Only thirty years old, with a job in a post office, a cat called Cabbage for company and without any greater aspirations, the young man is perfectly content with his life until a persistent flu turns out to be a terminal brain tumour. But as if a diagnosis of imminent death were not enough for a day’s events, the Devil makes an appearance into the man’s bottomless hopelessness. Mind you, though, there is no pitchfork, red face nor horns, but a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and Ray-Bans, laced with a remarkably life-changing offer: the man can earn an extra day of life in exchange for something disappearing from the world. The twist? It’s the Devil who chooses what goes – and he’s still the Devil, after all, despite his unconventional style and bubbly personality.
Set over a week, the narrator explores his precious extra time without phones, films and clocks. As he is not a parachuting or hang-gliding kind of a bucket list guy, he prioritizes making amends with his ex-girlfriend, revisiting classic films and meeting up with an old friend. Lingering in the background, though, is the death of his mother some years earlier and his own estrangement from his father since then – as well as the role of his family cats in all of this. So, when the Devil proposes to erase cats from the world, the dying protagonist is forced to face deeper questions of what actually makes life meaningful.
Death is undeniably a bleak outset for a novel, but Kawamura lunges at it with an irresistibly razor-sharp wit. The Devil in all his flamboyance and superficiality delivers the leading comic force, but there is a constant wry undertone sewn into the narrative that tickles the reader throughout. As the protagonist sets up a reunion with his ex-girlfriend after years of silence, he is faced not with commiserations for his predicament but with a list of his faults, from taking too long in the loo to always ordering the same curry rice in a restaurant. When he goes to the DVD shop of his film geek friend, the reader is overwhelmed with a dazzling repertoire of film quotes – which are now etched on my mind in the unfortunate context of a dying man trying to pick his last film:
“I’ll be back.”
The Terminator, I know how you feel – I want to come back too!
But it would do no justice to Kawamura’s novel to cast it simply as a comic masterpiece, for it goes much beyond its brilliant wit. The setup – choosing what to cast away from the world – is fertile ground for some very sharp insights about, and discerning stabs at, modern culture. Here, Kawamura can get near-aphoristic at times: “When human beings invented the mobile phone, they also invented the anxiety of not having one.”
Beyond that, though, at its very core, If Cats Disappeared from the World tells a story of parents and children, and this is where it really tugged at my heartstrings. As the days go on and the protagonist ponders his limited existence in a world increasingly devoid of things taken for granted, he finds the time – even in the absence of clocks – for introspection and memories of his family, looking back at his mother’s terminal illness and his relationship with his father. Kawamura is a genius when it comes to portraying his characters’ seemingly irrational actions and how all the well-meaning in the world can be lost in translation; in particular, the description of how the narrator comes to understand his father’s silent way of showing affection is simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-warming, and one of the most lovingly and observantly written pieces I’ve read in a while.
I’ve rarely come across such a short novel packed so full of empathy, introspection and wit in a near-Kafkaesque context; it makes me wonder what Kawamura promised to give up in return for such literary genius. Even if the novel is a deal with the devil, deep down it is a deeply humane – and feline – tale.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Genki Kawamura, If Cats Disappeared from the World (Picador, 2018). 978-1509889174, 144 pp., flapped paperback.
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