Sosuke Natsukawa’s 2017 The Cat Who Saved Books: A Novel is a modern fable. The 2021 English translation is by Louise Heal Kawai.
Antisocial bookworm Rintaro Natsuki has been raised by his grandfather, a bookshop owner. After his grandfather dies, Rintaro finds himself the ward of his aunt, who doesn’t understand what the shop means to him. He is told to shut down the shop.
That’s a good excuse for the boy to stop attending high school. He spends each day in the shop … but rather than shut it down, he attends to customers as though no deadline were bearing down on him. He doesn’t want to see his grandfather’s legacy dismantled, but he doesn’t know how to stop the process. (Don’t hate his aunt; she would be happy to accommodate him if he were to tell her what he wanted … but he’s too withdrawn and passive to speak up.)
Then the talking cat walks into the store.
The cat needs a champion. Rintaro is its choice. Rintaro’s views on the matter are of as much relevance as any human opinion is to a determined cat. Rintaro has been chosen. He will serve his designated role as book protector. Conveniently for the cat, Rintaro is a passive sort who is reluctant to say no.
The cat begins dispatching Rintaro to confront people who are abusing and endangering books. Only when he is well into the first quest is Rintaro informed that significant danger is involved. Passively accepting failure may consign Rintaro to what amounts to an eternity in hell. The boy is therefore well advised to step up his game.
The first book villain: a prodigious reader and book hoarder who, having read a book once, never revisits it. As far as this monster is concerned, status is a matter of who has read the most, not who understands the material best. He flaunts his collection. If he doesn’t display books he never plans to re-read, how will lesser people know how wonderful he is?
Drawing on his grandfather’s wisdom, Rintaro discovers within himself an unsuspected talent for rhetoric. However, convincing one hoarder to rethink their ways is the easiest task Rintaro faces. Failure becomes increasingly likely. The potential consequences remain dire.
This is short and charming, with a major proviso. To be discussed a few paragraphs below.
I for one find it completely plausible that a magical cat would consider it acceptable to send human off on a sequence of increasingly hazardous missions regardless of the human’s feelings in the matter. Sure, it’s a magical being with the power of speech, but it is also a cat and cats know what they want.
There’s a romantic side plot: Rintaro belatedly realizes that the reason star student Sayo Yuzuki1 insists on forcing her way into Rintaro’s life is not out of misplaced officiousness, but because she likes him. OK, this is fantasy but even in fantasies, there is a limit to suspension of disbelief. I can accept magical labyrinths and talking cats, but Rintaro’s eventual epiphany (she likes me!) is a step too far. It’s a well-known science fact that the penny only drops in these matters in the middle of the night, ten years later, when it is far too late.
All of the book’s villains are booklovers who see nothing wrong with their actions. But each of them is busily pursuing courses of action that undermine literature (at least in the eyes of the author): actions like hoarding, committing egregious acts of summarizing, or blindly following the dictates of the market without care for long-term consequences.
An authorial assumption that will boggle many readers is that while the narrative is very much in favour of books, it assumes — no, forcefully asserts — that there are only a few correct ways in which to express that love of books and that any deviation is a step off the narrow path of righteousness. If one happens to appreciate books in the manner the author prescribes, this is unlikely to be an issue. If, however, your habits are otherwise — if (say) your towering Mt Tsundoku affects local tides, the novel’s narrow views may well fail to please.
Still, the characters are charming, with the possible except of the cat. And the book is very short, so adding it to Mt Tsundoku probably will not be the straw that overtaxes your floorboards … probably.
1: Speaking of Sayo, it is a bit annoying that she is taken hostage near the end of the book. Woman in danger trope! Bah, I say.