A fateful cat, the infinitude of the home-run zone, and literature that cannot tell a lie.
This conversation with Japanese author Takashi Hiraide took place under somewhat unusual circumstances. We met at a noisy bar in downtown Manhattan along with several staff members from New Directions—publisher of For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (2008) and The Guest Cat (2014), Hiraide’s two books in English translation so far. And there was good reason to toast him because a week or so earlier The Guest Cat had, to the surprise of many people, appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list. But time was scarce. It was Hiraide’s last night in town, and he was soon to read at St Marks Bookstore alongside Lynn Tillmann.
The interview had to happen now and fast. So after some deliberation as to which language Hiraide would respond in, we began, his English steady and clear, referring only occasionally to his interpreter, Sho Sugita, for clarification. It became apparent midway through that we would have to set off for the bookstore in order to avoid Hiraide missing his own reading. Our conversation continued on the street. In the recording, my questions are punctuated with “Excuse me!” and “Turn right here,” while Hiraide’s answers carry a polite amusement. All of it is washed over by the unremitting atmosphere of a New York sidewalk.
Will Heyward How would you describe The Guest Cat, your most recently published book in English? It resembles at once a diary, an essay, or perhaps even a letter.
Takashi Hiraide Basically, I am a poet. I write poetry. But I’ve also written criticism and essays. I experiment with poetry and with various poetic styles. The first book of mine available in English is my second poetry collection, For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, and it is written in a fragmentary style. But in The Guest Cat, I changed from that, and I wrote in a more fluid prose style, though still in fragments. This was a change I made having written criticism on contemporary literary forms. Poetry can use criticism, and it can use prose.
WH The two books are certainly quite different, but both share a certain descriptive, almost empirical sensibility. Nothing is embellished; things must be described as they are, or at least as they are observed.
TH The Guest Cat is written in keeping with the Japanese tradition of the I-Novel. This is a kind of novel that is very near to the essay, but also a form that is interested in the difference between the two. The novel is a form of fiction, the essay a form of non-fiction, but I am very much interested in their subtle differences—in the space that exists between them but also in places where they overlap.
WH Why write about a cat?
TH I am very interested in the records of my own life, but records are far from fiction. We—my wife and I—met this particular cat, and that occurrence did change the direction of our lives. This was an act of fate, and the cat became our cat fatale.
WH It would be very easy to read the cat, which is notable for the way it moves across boundaries, between the narrator’s house and the neighbor’s, as a symbol for a particular kind of freedom. Does Chibi, the cat in the book, have a particular meaning to you?
TH This cat was very special. We didn’t know where she was from, nor did the actual owner. She was very small and young, but incredibly sensitive to interactions with people. I don’t believe she was accustomed to people in anyway. She wasn’t tame. I was sure she was special as soon as I looked at her. She would move between our house and the house next door, and play in the big Japanese garden that was there. I couldn’t ever understand what she was doing. I could never see the things she would gaze at. Of course, there are other cats that behave like this, but this cat was in touch with nothingness or nihility.
WH In The Guest Cat, the narrator’s relationship with his cat seems essential to his writing; in fact, the cat might have helped him become a writer. After meeting Chibi, he quits his job as an editor and devotes himself to writing fulltime.
TH I should speak about the tradition of the style in which I’m writing. This is a particular modern Japanese style of the I-Novel, which could be called the not-telling-a-lie style. I don’t make anything fictional. The fictional quality of the writing comes from somewhere else. I observe the dates on which things occur. I record facts. Nothing is contrived. I don’t exercise control over the story. I don’t mix anything with the facts that occur except the abbreviation or omission of other facts around them. This is a style I learned in my work as an editor. I worked with some very good, older I-Novelists whose school was near extinction at the time, and I learned from them about a way and spirit of writing. In my work, a poetic experiment of modernism and the tradition of the Japanese I-Novel meet. This is from my exposure to these novelists. I think language itself is minimum fiction. This is an extreme point where contrary things can intersect, for example poetry and prose, poesy and document, East and West.
WH In addition to this modern Japanese tradition, you seem to be influenced by—or at the very least interested in—European writers.
TH After 1868, many rapid changes took place in Japan. The language itself was changing, and so there was an impetus to change its styles and forms. But it wasn’t just Japanese literature that was influenced by Western poetry and poetics, but, again, the actual language itself. In this novella I experimented with vanishing the narrator by not using “first person.” This is possible because of the Japanese language, but its aim is from modern European literary considerations, like that of “impersonality” in the work of Maurice Blanchot.
WH One of your projects, which is widely commented on, is a book of postcards to Donald Evans, an artist you never met. Can you describe this project a little more for me?
TH The art of Donald Evans is of stamps from imaginary countries painted in watercolor. In some subtle and precise way he penetrates the real world with fiction. So if I write a letter to Donald and post it with his own stamp, it would be a penetration perhaps from the living to the dead, I hope. Anyway, that book is something of a hybrid, borrowing from many forms: novel, letter, diary, documentary, criticism, and fragmentary poem. In recent years, certain American writers have asked me about this Donald Evans book because these writers are interested in its hybrid form.
WH In both The Guest Cat and For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut there are a series of very careful, almost delicate anthropomorphic metaphors having to do with nature. Do you use this sort of figurative language when you write in Japanese, or is this something accentuated in translations?
TH Metaphor is very important in poetry, especially in modern poetry, of course. But there are often too many metaphors in poetry, as there is often too much fiction in novels. I try to be very strict in how I use metaphor. I want to be stoic in how I use it. Prose writing is always somewhat removed from metaphor because you have to refer to what is real and factual about the world. The balance between a factual world and a metaphorical world is very interesting to me.
WH What is the poetics of baseball?
TH I have written books about baseball, and I have found that it resembles a poetics. I analyzed the game in terms of infinities and limitations. The diamond playing field is a form of limitation, but the home run area is an infinite space. Infinity is sometimes poetry. But in the diamond there are very strict rules, as is the case for prose. Babe Ruth said, “The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball.”
WH Are you a baseball player?
TH Yes. I am a third baseman, but a little bit too veteran.
WH Which is your one true love, baseball or writing?
TH I’d like to evade answering that question.
WH The presence of Machiavelli in The Guest Cat stuck out to me.
TH Machiavelli was a politician. He is known for having written The Prince, which is a book of political criticism, but he also wrote poetry. That is very interesting for me, in the same way baseball is, because in Machiavelli there is, again, that combination of limitation and infinity. He wrote very important things about the real world. The name of Machiavelli is not a good reference for contemporary politicians because he is associated with a ruthless pragmatism. I am interested in the other side of him: Machiavelli, the poet. He was a very careful stylist. He wrote some verse in the form of a decennial, from the epic style of Dante.
WH Your narrator is so unlike Machiavelli. He gives the impression of having very little control over the events of the book. Indeed the writing of the book itself could be read as some sort of attempt to shape and control such events.
TH He argued about power but was not himself a man of power. If you want to see the world in terms of prose and poetry, Machiavelli is prose, and yet he wrote plays, fables, novellas, and many poems.
WH Do you read the English translations of your own books?
TH I haven’t read the translation of The Guest Cat yet. With the first book, I talked a lot with my translator prior to publication; we discussed rhymes, word choice, and syntax at great length. But in the case of The Guest Cat, I haven’t interfered at all. I thought that if I begun to ask questions there would be no end to the conversation.
WH The Guest Cat has been a great success here in the US, and it has been on bestseller lists both here and in France.
TH Yes, this has been a pleasant surprise. Publishers in fifteen countries now want to get the rights for translation.
WH Are there plans for any more of your books to appear in English?
TH I have written another novel, For Searching after the Birds, but that one is rather long and wide in construction, so it’s not easy to find a translator. And Tibor de Nagay gallery has already published a beautifully designed edition of my Postcards to Donald Evans. I was surprised to see that there are pirate copies of that book available online too. One of which I noticed was for sale on Amazon for roughly $2,400.
WH That’s incredible. Donald Evans never read those postcards, did he?
TH No, I wrote them after he had died. I was moved to do it when I saw an exhibition of his in Tokyo after his death. In 1985, I met some of his close friends in New York, among them Bill Katz, who helped me as I began to research and write about Evans and his traces.
WH You’re a book designer yourself, is that correct?
TH I’ve designed half of my own books, a few for other writers, one musician’s album art, and some other projects. I also have a sort of “postal poetry” project going at the moment. This is series of my own design called via wwalnuts—minimalist books of only about eight pages, each contained inside a German envelope with postal stamp and postmark. I’ve made these books available on my webpage, and when people order them, I mail them to their letter box at home, all over the world. It’s a project that allows me to combine my own writing directly with readers. I‘m calling it “book design as écriture.”
Will Heyward is an editorial assistant at Knopf. His journalism can be found at willheyward.com.