I am the princess Harueme, daughter of Fujiwara no Enyu and the emperor we now call Go-Sanjo
–Kij Johnson - Fudoki - c.2003
Princess Harueme is dying. She can feel it, a great weight inside her, so she is preparing for death. Emptying out old trunks, burning the notebooks she has spent a lifetime filling. Reading old letters and poems, remembering her life, and, because she has found so many blank notebooks writing a story. The story of a cat whose life and family, her fudoki, are destroyed by fire.
If you have read Johnson’s The cat who walked a thousand miles then the story of the cat, at least, might sound familiar. But the tortoiseshell cat of Fudoki has a very different adventure than Small Cat of The cat who walked a thousand miles. I would say that if you enjoyed the short story you will probably enjoy this too, although Fudoki has a lot more to talk about.
For one thing it is not just about a cat looking for a home. It is also the story of Harueme. Daughter of an emperor, half-sister to another emperor, a member of the imperial family, and so cosseted and protected. But her life is also one that is not her own. As a child she struggled somewhat against the rules and customs; she was fascinated by “vermin” and often wrote about them, drew them, examined their bodies. She also kept mice, at least for a while. But she learned her life, for the most part, was not her own. And while she managed to rebel against certain things she never really got to experience what she wanted in life. Too hemmed in by propriety.
In some ways the story of the cat is her way of experiencing the world. For the cat who became a woman, known as Kagaya-hime, travels. She sees life and the people in a way that Harueme never got to see for herself. Harueme has read widely, has talked to people, but never to peasants. She has no idea how the world works when there is no one to go and fetch you what you need. Kagaya-hime is living that life.
But Kagaya-hime has problems of her own. She doesn’t want to be a woman. She *is* not a woman. She is a cat, she wants to return to cat form. But at the same time she doesn’t know what to do as a cat, not now that she has lost her fudoki. She believes herself alone, no-one and nothing.
This is a companion book to The Fox Woman but you do not need to have read that to enjoy this. You simply have to enjoy wonderfully written books. It’s strange, I couldn’t say that I love either our first person narrator of the princess, nor the cat character that is, in some ways, our secondary narrator. Harueme is great, but she believes she is at the end of her life, re-evaluating and remembering. Kagaya-hime is too alien to love. She is a cat and cats are not people even if they walk around on two legs. But this story is just great. I think it would really reward a reread. It is so well crafted and perfectly written. I really enjoyed it.