Sunday, 20 April 2014

'Oh, Tama!' by Mieko Kanai (Review)

Kurodahan Press were kind enough to support my January in Japan event earlier this year by offering a few prizes, and while I'd read one of the three offerings, the other two looked quite interesting too...  Luckily enough, I was able to get review copies for myself, and - just as importantly - I was also able to snatch a few hours recently to try one :)

Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! (translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy) is just another in the long line of Japanese books featuring a cat (I'm sure you all know of at least one writer who likes to do this...).  The Tama of the novel is a pregnant black-and-white kitty who is unceremoniously brought to the apartment of Natsuyuki, an unemployed photographer, by Alexandre, the brother of his ex-girlfriend Tsuneko.

The cat belonged to Tsuneko, but she has gone into hiding after using her own pregnancy to fleece several potential fathers of a fair amount of money, so it's up to mild-mannered Natsuyuki to take care of Tama until the kittens come into the world.  However, the arrival of the cat in Natsuyuki's life is to cause several other changes, and from being a loner living a peaceful life in a small, quiet apartment, Natsuyuki suddenly finds himself at the centre of a noisy, chaotic social circle...

It would be an understatement to say that Oh, Tama! isn't really plot driven - in fact, there isn't really a plot to speak of.  Once the initial set up introduces us to the basic concept, and to the characters of Natsuyuki, Alexandre and Tama, it's simply a series of conversations, meals and friends dropping by for a drink.  In that sense, it has a lot in common with more traditional Japanese fare (such as, dare I say it, Natsume Soseki's I am a Cat), but in its tone it's a lot more modern - prostitutes instead of geishas, beer in place of sake.

Typical of this modern taste to the book is the character of Alexandre, an outsider due to his foreign blood (his father was possibly a foreign sailor, but his mother was very vague about this...).  He can't help but stand out in a very homogenous society:
"Alexandre, talking in a rather feminine way, opined that, judging from the color of his hair (reddish-brown) and eyes (light gray), his father would seem to have been a Caucasian; but he might have been a light-skinned Negro, or a Jew.  He was an unspecified person whose very ethnicty was unclear."
p.16 (Kurodahan Press, 2014)
A restless soul, who pops in and out of Natsuyuki's life randomly, Alexandre makes his living with a series of temporary jobs, the most intriguing of which is porn star...

As the novel progresses, though, we find that Alexandre is actually the norm, rather than an exception.  Tsuneko is only his half-sister, and it turns out that Natsuyuki and another of the possible fathers of her unborn (and possibly non-existent) child are related in the same way (this new half-brother becomes one of the occasional visitors to Natsuyuki's tiny flat...).  And, of course, if we're talking about absent fathers, it would be remiss of us not to mention the fact that Tama is also bringing up her kittens without a tomcat to help out ;)

Oh, Tama! is a difficult book to analyse in hindsight.  To use familiar J-Lit markers, it has a Haruki Murakami protagonist forced to socialise with a few of the nicer characters from a Ryu Murakami novel, and they all sit around and talk rubbish in the vein of Banana Yoshimoto's creations.  And nothing much gets done:
"What with thoughts like that swirling through my mind, somehow everything became too much of a bother.  The feeling that there was nothing I really wanted to do crept up from the tips of my toes." (p.85)
At times, you begin to wonder if the writer has fallen asleep on the job too...

By the end of the book though, a couple of themes have emerged from the alcohol-fuelled haze.  The unemployed photographer, the foreign-blooded porn actor and the confused psychiatrist are all connected in that they are existing outside the notoriously regimented constraints of mainstream Japanese society.  They all scrape by on a day-to-day basis and occasionally show that they're not quite as cheerful on the inside as it appears on the outside.

However, what they also have in common is a bond which allows them to seek comfort, and what Kanai does cleverly in Oh, Tama! is construct a cohesive social group from very different parts.  While Tama doesn't play a large active role in the story, her arrival in Natsuyuki's life is the catalyst for a change in his relationships with other people.  I said earlier that very little happens, and that's true - however, at the end of the novel, this very little is done by many more people.  Which is a progression of sorts ;)

I don't think this will be for everyone, but it's a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, and there is a little more to it than may first meet the eye.  And, of course, if you're a cat lover, this may just be a book you'll enjoy spending some time with - whether there's a furry companion on your lap or not!