The Tale within the Story

Haruki Murakami

(The Tale within the Story)

Editor’s Note: I’ve discussed it before on this site devoted to the story: stories within stories. This excerpt (below) “Town of Cats” from Haruki Murakami’s longer story, also titled “Town of Cats”, is a splendid example of how this modern master of the short story raises the level of narrative technique to something entirely his own, fusing tradition with modern, experimental, but always with an imprint that boldly states: Made by Murakami. Though ‘made’ doesn’t come close to the magic he works in both short and long compositions.

Murakami’s fiction frequently appears in The New Yorker. If you have never read his stories and novels before…you’re in for more than a mere treat. Something like an experience you may relish and want to keep to yourself. Or shout about to others. “Caution” however. He’s not a quick read. It may not be love at first sight. Perhaps, for some readers, that old truth: “an acquired taste.” A mix of Eastern and Western culture. (from Buddhism to Vonnegut, Brautigan, etc.) A love of music: classical, rock, jazz. He’s one crazy cat…

Speaking of cats…they’re everywhere in his stories. (He once ran a coffeehouse/jazz bar in Tokyo called “Peter Cat.”)

Here’s that excerpt from a recent story in The New Yorker…a story, within a story, that is probably yet a greater excerpt from a forthcoming novel, I would guess. — Norbert Blei

TOWN OF CATS

When the train left Tokyo Station, Tengo took out the paperback that he had brought along. It was an anthology of short stories on the theme of travel and it included a tale “Town of Cats,” a fantastical piece by a German writer whom Tengo was not familiar. According to the book’s foreword, the story had been written in the period between the two World Wars.

In the story, a young man is traveling alone with no particular destination in mind. He rides the train and gets off at any stop that arouses his interest. He takes a room, sees the sights, and stays for as long as he likes. When he has had enough, he boards another train. He spends every vacation this way.

One day, he sees a lovely river from the train window. Gentle green hills line the meandering stream, and below them lies a pretty little town with an old stone bridge. The train stops at the town’s station, and the young man steps down with his bag. No one else gets off, and, as soon as he alights, the train departs.

No workers man the station, which must see very little activity. The young man crosses the bridge and walks into the town. All the shops are shuttered, the town hall deserted. No one occupies the desk at the town’s only hotel. The place seems totally uninhabited. Perhaps all the people are off napping somewhere. But it Is only ten-thirty in the morning, far too early for that. Perhaps something has caused all the people to abandon the town. In any case, the next train will not come until the following morning, so he has no choice but to spend the night here. He wanders around the town to kill time.

In fact, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats come trooping across the bridge—cats of all different kinds and colors. They are much larger than ordinary cats, but they are still cats. The young man is shocked by this sight. He rushes into the bell tower in the center of town and climbs to the top to hide. The cats go about their business, raising the shop shutters or seating themselves at their desks to start their day’s work. Soon, more cats come, crossing the bridge into town like the others. They enter the shops to buy things or go to the town hall to handle administrative matters or eat a meal at the hotel restaurant or drink beer at the tavern and sing lively cat songs. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats finish their work, close up the shops, and swarm back across the bridge.

By the time the sun comes up, the cats are gone, and the town is deserted again. The young man climbs down, picks one of the hotel beds for himself, and goes to sleep. When he gets hungry, he eats some bread and fish that have been left in the hotel kitchen. When darkness approaches, he hides in the bell tower once again and observes the cats’ activities until dawn. Trains stop at the station before noon and in the late afternoon. No passengers alight, and no one boards, either. Still the trains stop at the station for exactly one minute, then pull out again. He could take one of these trains and leave the creepy cat town behind. But he doesn’t. being young, he has a lively curiosity and his ready for adventure. He wants to see more of this strange spectacle. If possible, he wants to find out when and how this place became a town of cats.

On his third night, a hubbub breaks out in the square below the bell tower. “Hey, do you smell something human?” one of the cats says. “Now that you mention it, I thought there was a funny smell the past few days,” another chimes in, twitching his nose. “Me too,” yet another cats says. “That weird. There shouldn’t be any humans here,” someone adds. “No, of course not. There’s no way a human could get into this town of cats.” “But that smell is definitely here.”

The cats form groups and begin to search the town like bands of vigilantes. It takes them very little time to discover that the bell tower is the source of the smell. The young man hears their softs paws padding up the stairs. That’s it, they’ve got me! He thinks. His smell seems to have roused the cats to anger. Humans are not supposed to set foot in this town. The cats have big sharp claws, and white fangs. He has no idea what terrible fate awaits him if he is discovered, but he is sure they will not let him leave the town alive.

Three cats climb to the top of the bell tower and sniff the air. “Strange,” one cats says, twitching his whiskers, “I smell a human, but there’s no one here.”

“It is strange,” a second cat says. “But there really isn’t anyone here. Let’s go and look somewhere else.”

The cats cock their heads, puzzled, then retreat down the stairs. The young mn hears their steps fading into the dark of night. He breathes a sigh of relief, but he doesn’t understand what just happened. There was no way they could have missed him. But for some reason they didn’t see him. In any case, he decides that when morning comes he will go to the station and take the train out of this town. His luck can’t last forever.

The next morning, however, the train does not stop at the station. He watches it pass by without slowing down. The afternoon train does the same. He can see the engineer seated at the controls. But the train shows no sign of stopping. It is as though no one can see the young man waiting for a train—or even the station itself. Once the afternoon train disappears down the track, the place grows quieter than ever. The sun begins to sink. It is time for the cats to come. The young man knows he is irretrievably lost. This is no town of cats, he finally realizes.. It is the place where he is meant to be lost. It is another world, which has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to take him back to the world he came from.

Tengo read the story twice. The phrase “the place where he is meant to be lost” attracted his attention. He closed the book and let his eyes wander across the drab industrial scene passing by the train window. Soon afterward, he drifted off to sleep—not a long nap but a deep one. He woke covered in sweat. The train was moving along the southern coastline of the Boso Peninsula in midsummer.

[from THE NEW YORKER, September 5, 2011]


This is Haruki Murakami’s signature. Click the signature to visit the Haruki Murakami web page please… or just go here…

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Norb! I am a big fan of Murakami’s, I’ve read everything I could find, I started with Kafka on the Shore, and I couldn’t put it down. Waiting for his next book now. Thanks for posting this. /Hank

  2. I really like the cat t-shirt. I’ll have to read the story again; I have to say I don’t really get an aha like you do. It reminds me of the foreign film from the late 80s or early 90s of Carmen by Caddes or Gaddes and the flamenco dance troup that was a story within a story.

  3. Taps. Lights out. The teller holds a flashlight under his chin. Time for a ghost story….and a very good one at that!
    (Cats or no cats!)

  4. It is a very errie story. Much more likely to raise goose bumps than monsters or ghost stories because it attacks the human core on so many levels. Even if the train should come and take the young man away safely he would never be rational again. He would forever doubt his own sanity. Like Norb, I’m wondering what would happen if this story went on and the human decides to outwit the cats at every level. Can he win if he does not give in to terror? I also wonder how the author ever came to conceive such a scenario…but then, do we even know how the conception of our own work comes about?

  5. It was easy to be pulled right into the story, hiding in the bell tower. Will I get out of town?

  6. Haruki Murakami is one of my all time favorite writers. He’s so good at creating a whole new world. Just fantastic.

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