The day Fully Booked announced that they would be open for deliveries within Metro Manila amid the community quarantine, I was already on their online store browsing for books. That’s how much I missed being inside a book store. Looking at book covers through a screen didn’t quite emulate the experience, especially when half the catalogue was out of stock, but for the meantime it was enough. At this point I was getting the feeling we’d be stuck in lockdown for quite a while, so I wanted to test if Fully Booked’s online store would be a viable alternative. I have a few thoughts on that, but I’ll save it for the end.
I ended up buying the English translation to Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared From The World, which I’d first learned about after I was introduced to its film adaptation back in 2017 by an ex-girlfriend. Since then I’ve made pretty much everyone I know watch it, and when I visited Japan in July of 2018 I especially made it a point to visit a local book store and buy a copy of it in the original Japanese (along with the two-volume Japanese edition of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood).
Why Japanese, though? I don’t know a word from the language outside of the few I’d learned in my two weeks in Nagoya and Kyoto two years ago (“sumisasen,” which I used quite a lot, and “ryōshū-sho”, which became an essential especially when on a government-funded trip). I bought the books (both Kawamura’s and Murakami’s) for sentimental purposes, as a sort of collection. I would have wanted to get and read the English version, but at the time it just wasn’t available yet.
Eric Selland’s translation (Amazon; Fully Booked) wouldn’t come until a year later, in 2019, through Flatiron Books. And despite the film’s relative unknown in the Philippines, the translation somehow made its way to our shores. Thank God for that. The book arrived nearly three weeks after I ordered it, but in that time I’d also ordered my Kindle and so I haven’t really gotten around to reading it until now.
The translation is pretty light. It carries the type of language you’d expect from your standard YA novel, something that seemed to agitate some reviewers on Goodreads. I’m not sure if the translation’s language carries over from the original Japanese since it is technically a “light novel” – even though I have the original on hand, only I can’t read it – but I don’t really have any issues with the language. It’s written in first person, and it concerns a thirty year-old mailman who finds out that he has terminal stage cancer. Just as he is about to die, he is visited by the devil who offers him a chance to extend his lifespan by making one thing “disappear” from the world.
It’s a very fun read and, despite the lightness of its language, it doesn’t shy away from its heavier insights into what our lives have become in the twenty-first century, riddled with useless things and practically enslaved by the technology that was supposed to liberate us. In his first deal with the devil, the protagonist extends his life another day by making all phones disappear from the world. He decides he is okay with phones disappearing from the world, thinking:
“When you think about it, that’s not such a terrible thing, especially when it comes to cell phones! Lately it seemed like I was messing around on my stupid phone all the time, from the moment I got up in the morning to just before bedtime. I didn’t make any time for reading books or newspapers, and DVDs I borrowed just piled up in my room unwatched. On the train on the way to work, I would stare at my phone the whole way. Even when I watched TV, I checked it regularly. During my lunch break, I got a terrible urge to look at my phone. And even when I was with Cabbage I ended up fiddling with it instead of playing with him. Being such a slave to the device made me hate myself.”
One might even say the language and the shortness of the book (my edition only runs for 168 pages) further add to the novel’s overall feeling. The narrator, having found himself in a situation that’s literally life-and-death, has no time to mull over his choices. Life, for him, has been cut short, and in this reverse-Faustian drama he begins to seriously evaluate what his life – and death – stands for.
Compared with the film, the book’s story is more straightforward. For one it doesn’t seem to bother itself with making an entire mystery out of the identity of the narrator’s pet cat, which was an impressive if rather unnecessary focal point for the film. Otherwise, it’s obvious that the same soul and heart-wringing empathy that had captured me in the adaptation also exists in Kawamura’s original novel, and so far it’s turning out to be the fun read I’d hoped it would be.