‘The Town of Cats’ (1935) is Hagiwara Sakutarō’s only short story. One is caught between wishing he’d written others and suspecting that he would never again have achieved such a delicate balance of oddity and normality as he does here. Sakutorō was apparently interested in ‘madness, hallucinations, obsession, and abnormal psychology’; his narrator is similarly interested in such things and discusses them in what one might call a rational and logical way, while also candidly admitting to having experimented with drugs such as morphine and cocaine.
|Image by Annabelle Lee|
Yet again we are in the company of a narrator who might be considered to be unreliable, indeed more so because of the precise way in which he lays out his argument, reiterates it through example, and then restates it in the concluding section of the story, almost like a careful drunk. Or perhaps he is indeed correct. At the same time, one might argue that his reiteration of his thesis is nothing more than a digression; his prose rambles in the same way as his walks. He is lost in his own argument and the reader is lost with him.
Then again, maybe not, for whatever else is going on, this tale is carefully structured. Its repetition is calculated, there is a sense of movement, from then to the ‘now’ of the reader, there is change and transformation. There is also a shifting, a darkening of mood, palpable but unexplained. The fact is that for all the narrator seems to be open and candid about his theory and his story, and to pass off his change of heart as ennui, there is a sense of something disturbing lurking underneath: apprehension, anxiety, fear even, which is never quite articulated. It’s particularly noticeable at the beginning of the story as he describes the transformation of his views.
‘The quality that incites the desire for travel has gradually disappeared from my fantasies’ (233), says the narrator. ‘Just to picture a train, steamboat, or town in an unfamiliar foreign land was enough to make my heart dance’ (233), he goes on. One might take this as the view of someone unable to travel, someone longing to get away, to be on the move somewhere, anywhere. ‘But experience has taught me that travel presents nothing more than “identical objects moving in identical spaces”’ (233), suggesting that disillusion has set in somewhere along the way.
Now the thought of travel projects onto my weary heart an infinitely tedious landscape like that of a paulownia tree growing in a vacant lot, and I feel a dull loathing for human life in which this sameness repeats itself everywhere. Travel no longer holds any interest or romance for me. (233)
Given the narrator’s revelation that he used morphine and cocaine to undertake ‘wondrous voyages in my own personal way’ (233), one might guess that having abandoned such a practice he is disappointed with a more conventional approach to life. Who would not be if obliged to abandon the opportunity to ‘adroitly navigate the borderline between dream and reality to play in an uninhibited world of my own making’ (233). Yet, as the narrator also notes, ‘Even after returning to normal, I would cling to those visions and relive them again and again in the world of reality’ (234).
Given this is all cast in the past tense, something seems to have gone wrong somewhere but what? We might attribute this to the narrator’s next revelation, that drug use took a toll on his health, implying that he has given it up, but why can he no longer relive the visions? Have ‘normal’ and ‘reality’ changed as a result of this? If that is the implication, ‘normal’ and ‘reality’ are clearly as fragile as his narcotic experiences rather than a place to which he can return safely. Obviously, they don’t match up to landscapes ‘filled with brilliant primary hues’ or to seas and skies that were ‘always as clear and blue as glass’ (234), but one is still left with the sense of something else being involved, though whatever it is, the narrator is not saying. At least, not directly.
Having decided to take better care of himself, we learn that the narrator has begun to take daily walks. ‘Normally, I do not deviate from my established path’ contrasts sharply with ‘the trips frequently took me wandering’ (234) and one begins to sense the narrator’s self-imposed constraints, and perhaps too his perception of how the quotidien world works. In turn, it is not difficult to understand the allure of those ‘wondrous voyages’.
Travel and drugs are so closely bound here, when the narrator announces that he has found ‘a new way to satisfy my eccentric wanderlust’ (234), one wonders for a moment if he hasn’t happened on a new drug. Instead, ‘ for some reason that day, I slipped into an unfamiliar alleyway, and going the wrong way, I lost all sense of direction’ (234). It turns out that the narrator has form, so to speak. He claims to have no innate sense of direction though one wonder how many people do. Rather, he is not very good at remembering how to get anywhere which is, I think, slightly different, and very good at getting himself accidentally turned about, in the most literal sense. Coming at familiar things from a different direction, he appears to be incapable of recognising them.
It’s how he chooses to interpret this experience that is significant.
I felt as if I was dreaming. I wondered if perhaps what I was seeing was not a real town but a reflection or silhouette of a town projected on a screen. Then, just as suddenly, my memory and common sense returned. Examining my surroundings, I realized I was seeing an ordinary, familiar block on my neighbourhood. (234) (my italics)
So how does the mechanism work? Is it simply that he hasn’t been paying attention so without the usual visual cues and anchors a familiar place becomes strange; or does his mind actually move into a different state? The narrator’s matter-of-fact use of language leaves the reader uncertain although he has a theory to offer:
The mysterious neighbourhood that I had seen a moment before existed in some universe of opposite space where the compass was reversed. (235)
This, it turns out, is an occult place more easily accessed by those with no sense of direction than those who know where they’re going. One has the impression that the narrator has been trying to lose himself for as long as he can remember, one way or another, yet is somehow secure in the knowledge that to become lost is to become found, not by going home exactly but by reaching these places that are more aesthetically satisfying. If we go back to the beginning of the story his distinction between the excitement of travel and his latter disappointment begins to take on a more sinister edge.
Yet that unnerving rationality persists. The narrator challenges the reader to either accept his story as real or regard it as the hallucination of a morphine addict. The options remain open and he continues to push his suspect reliability into the reader’s face.
The second section of the story reiterates the pattern of the first, as the author lays out his thesis, justifying and questioning it. Instead of being in a familiar neighbourhood, he is now in a spa town in the Hokuetsu region. The topography is carefully described, including the transport infrastructure between the different towns. The narrator is still pursuing his walking regime, now in the mountains. He has heard strange stories about some of the towns, including one whose inhabitants are possessed by dog-spirits, another whose inhabitants are possessed by cats. The mechanism behind this is carefully rationalised by the narrator, who describes them as superstitions but represents himself as having an interest in such anthropological matters, and thus he theorises for the reader’s benefit.
And while pondering all this, the narrator has got himself lost again. Eventually, he finds his way to a ‘beautiful, prosperous town’, feeling as if he were ‘seeing an image projected by a magic lantern onto a screen in front of me’, a familiar notion so we know that the narrator has entered into his ‘turned about’ state, or as he puts it, ‘I crossed over into the projection and became a part of the mysterious town itself’ (237). Again, there is the sense of aesthetic perfection already noted, but here very much heightened both in terms of the detail of the place and the narrator’s response to it. Is it commensurate with his other experiences or is it perhaps, as I begin to suspect, that this time we may not be dealing with an act of imagination but something different, an actual transfer to another place.
The narrator is struck by the absence of noise: ‘A refined, hushed silence reigned over the place, casting a pall that was as profound as a deep sleep’ (238). He decides that this is an artificial thing, the town’s atmosphere being created by the ‘subtle attentions of its inhabitants’ (238), reinforcing the idea of the town as a projection, the output of the inhabitants’ minds, the product of a continuous process of adjustment, perhaps even a collective act of imagination. ‘The whole town was a perilously fragile structure of thin crystal’ (238), and crystal, of course, can break.
The narrator envisages the effort to maintain the town’s harmony being stretched beyond endurance, until everything collapses, and then the cats appear.
This wasn’t the human world! Was there nothing in this world but cats? What on earth had happened? Was this world real? Something had to be wrong with me. Either I was seeing an illusion or I had gone mad! My senses had lost their balance. The universe was collapsing around me. (239)
And suddenly the town has changed. ‘An entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card had been turned over to reveal its other side. It was nothing but an ordinary, commonplace country town’ (239), and in fact the place the narrator had been heading to all along; needless to say, he had entered the town from a different angle and had got himself turned around. It’s all very straightforward except that in the very next sentence the narrator is telling us that he was also ‘looking at a separate universe of another dimension, at the back side of the landscape’ (239).
Whatever it is the narrator experienced it is the presence of the cats that seems to disturb him most, that prompt him to ‘relive the terror of that day just by thinking about it’, at variance with those early visions of drug-induced journeys to which he would cling afterwards. It is, though, difficult to determine quite what it is about the cats that so disturbs the narrator other, perhaps, than that they signal the fact that he is not in control of his world in the way he thought he was. Or that worlds might intersect in ways he had not considered. How, for example, might the cats understand his presence in their world? Do they suppose they have imagined him? For that matter, how can we assert that the narrator is wrong in claiming to have found this place? True, we have only his word for it, but then again, we do have his word for it; just because no one else has yet seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
This is a clever, subtle story that resists being taken apart and ‘explained’ even as it seems to invite the reader to do just that, which is perhaps why I like it so much. It teases me, the critic, encouraging me to write about it but at the same time gently suggesting that I might not have the authority I think I have, because how can I be sure. It is a challenge, to be sure, to write about this story. Its weirdness is both overt and occult; the challenge comes in trying to tease out one from the other, acknowledging the narrator’s smokescreen storytelling techniques while looking beyond them to see what he might really be talking about. It is so very satisfactory in the way it dissatisfies the reader while loading her down with possibility.
As the VanderMeers note in their introduction to the story, it presages the work of Haruki Murakami. In fact, while I was searching for a suitable image to accompany this story, I came across Murikami’s own story entitled ‘Town of Cats’, which forms a section of his most recent novel, IQ84. There is a bonus interview with Murikami in the New Yorker which suggests he has no idea where he got the story from. Oddly enough, Murikami’s story reminds me of Bruno Schluz’s ‘Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass’, which I’ll be writing about shortly.
I also came across a series of striking images by Annabelle Lee, inspired by the Murikami version of ‘Town of Cats’, one of which appears at the head of this article. However, I would urge you to take a look at all the drawings in her project as they are outstanding.