An understated but moving novel with the cutest cover ever!

If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura

Translated by Eric Selland

I think the little kitten on this book must rank amongst the cutest cats ever to grace a cover.  What you can’t see from the picture above is that his eyes are highlighted with gold, glinting at you, and daring you to consider the title, which begins the story:

If cats disappeared from the world, how would the world change? And how would my life change?
And if I disappeared from the world? Well, I suppose nothing would change at all. Things would probably go on,  day after day . . . same as usual.
OK, so you’re probably thinking this is all a bit silly, but please, believe me.
What I’m about to tell you happened over the past seven days.
Now that’s what you call a weird week.
Oh, and by the way – I’m going to die soon.
So how did all this happen?
My letter will explain everything.

The unnamed narrator gets the worst possible news; he has only a short while to live.

When I found out, the first thing that occurred to me was that I was only one stamp away from getting a free massage on my loyalty card, and I shouldn’t have bothered buying so much toilet paper and detergent. It was the little things which came to mind.

He’s a postman. He’s only thirty years old, and has been estranged from his father since his mother died. He lives alone with his cat Cabbage – named for his similarity to his previous cat whom his mother had called Lettuce after the original contents of the box he was found in.

Sitting down to think about what he should do with his remaining days, the devil appears (in a Hawaiian shirt) and makes him an offer. He can gain an extra day of life in return for making one thing in the world disappear.  The devil is quite choosy though, it can’t be anything totally inconsequential – but our narrator takes him up on his offer and nothing really bad happens. So when the devil comes back again to repeat the offer he is tempted again. However, the devil gets more and more demanding in the choices and we edge closer to the book’s title.

As his sort of Faustian pact with the devil is going on, the narrator has to continue living his life, and one thing he needs to do is to arrange a new home for Cabbage after he’s gone. He contacts his ex-girlfriend who loved his cat to see if she will take Cabbage. Of course she will, and they become friends again as the days go on.

The increasing pressure from the devil to make things vanish in order to survive begins to take its toll though, and our narrator is forced to examine his life and decide anew what should be important, he needs to make some changes.  The things that vanish (I’m not going to tell you any of them), have consequences that are important for the narrator and will help him resolve his life.  The consequences of the narrator’s pact are thoroughly considered, and the resolution was touching.

This superb short novel is written in that understated and wry style that seems to work so well for many Japanese authors: funny, but with an emotional heft underneath that belies the simplicity of the text.  At just over 200 well-spaced pages, this short novel can easily be read in one session – and once I started, there was no way I could put the book down!  I’m told this book will appeal to readers of Takashi Hirade’s The Guest Cat – also translated by Selland, a novel I’ve yet to read, but will. I can say with certainty however, that it will appeal to cat-lovers and fans of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nagano Thrift Shop. I mean, who could resist that cover?  (10/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you.

Genki Kawamura, If Cats Disappeared from the world (trans Eric Selland) – Picador,  Sept 2018, flapped paperback, 202 pages.

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12 thoughts on “An understated but moving novel with the cutest cover ever!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You’re the first person I’ve encountered who didn’t like the Kawakami! This one, although it shares that wry, understated humour is in the first person, and has the cat – so a bit different – you may get on with it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Japanese fiction has a style that appeals to me too. Although I should read more in translation from everywhere, Japanese probably follows French in those I do read.

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