‘The Cat And The City’, written by Nick Bradley, is a tribute to Tokyo and its people, and the many cats which live in a world of their own.
Nick Bradley’s ‘The Cat And The City’ made me wonder what’s with Japan and its obsession with cats. I am a late entrant to Japanese literature or works of fiction set in Japan, but you see cats everywhere. You find them walking on the roads, catching the attention of the characters in the novels; you notice them perched on walls observing thousands of people walking on the roads; you see them jostling for space even as humans struggle to find some; you hear them pay no attention to the world around them which, at times, looks for them for answers about why they feel so lonely and alienated. In Nick Bradley’s ‘The Cat And The City’, this effect is even more pronounced because this novel is as much about people in Tokyo as it is about cats.
In the opening chapter of the novel, a young woman approaches a tattoo artist with an unusual request – she wants the map of Tokyo tattooed on her back. And, she doesn’t want any humans in the tattoo. As the tattoo artist begins his work, imprinting the city’s map on her back inch by inch, he grows obsessed with the project. As his signature, he adds the image of a cat somewhere in the city. But, one fine day, he realises that the cat has changed its original position and soon, it goes completely missing from the tattoo. And thus begins a wonderful journey where Nick Bradley narrates the story of several people living in Tokyo and in each one of these stories, a cat makes his presence felt.
Placing a cat in the middle of the narrative gives Nick Bradley quite an advantage to find a common connection between the lives of people he explores in the novel. We don’t know if it’s the same cat which appears in each one of the stories, but how does it matter anyway – the cat is omnipresent like God himself. At one point, I kept thinking, perhaps, the cat is a metaphor for the metro line in Tokyo which seems to connect every place. Or maybe it’s also the spirit of the city itself which pulls and pushes people closer or away from each other. Whatever it is, it’s hard to not think about cats while reading the book. Long after reading the book, it struck me that of all the characters described in the book, maybe it’s this stray cat alone which truly has a life of its own. It’s free to do whatever it wants, see whatever it wants to, and go wherever it wants to. It’s the embodiment of freedom, something which most other characters struggle with throughout the novel.
One of my favourite stories in the novel is about a couple, who struggle to find a common ground in their relationship despite having a seemingly perfect lift. It’s titled ‘Autumn Leaves’ and Nick Bradley’s writing is at its best in this segment of the story. The couple in the story captures the emotional conflict of Japan itself, which wants to be both traditional and modern at the same time, and the more we read about what the couple goes through in their marriage, the more we understand that ‘The Cat And The City’, the novel, is about people negotiating with their lives, which never seems to be in their control.
The story is set in the backdrop of the Olympics that are to be held in Tokyo, and as the city gears up to welcome thousands of people expected to arrive, several others find their lives change over a period of time. The city administration is on a drive to ‘beautify’ the city and demolish illegal settlements, driving homeless people away or even putting them in jail. The local people have a love-hate relationship with foreigners in their country and how they seem to have no respect Japanese culture. But at the same time, there are several others who are fascinated by foreigners around them. Another recurring theme in the novel is relationships within a family and how people often struggle to make peace with their past. It plays out beautifully in many of the stories where Murphy’s law unfurls itself like mist in the forest.
Nick Bradley is clearly fascinated with Japanese culture and its many idiosyncrasies. ‘The Cat And The City’ is his love letter to Tokyo, which dazzles you at every corner. The endless fascination with cats makes you think – what secrets are these creatures carrying? Who are they talking to? And what are they trying to tell you every time they stare at you and see through your soul? This novel made me fall in love with everything it focuses on – Japan. Tokyo. Cats.
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