Princesses and cats: Kij Johnson’s Fudoki

Fudoki is a very unusual fantasy novel. Harueme is an elderly princess in Heian Japan, and she thinks she’s dying. She starts to sort out her belongings, and as she does she finds a series of empty notebooks and is compelled to fill them with the story of a cat, intertwined with the story of her own life. The cat becomes a woman and has adventures the princess would have liked to have had. Harueme is a very present narrator, and you seldom get away from her life and the fact that this is a story she’s telling. The story she tells is definitely fantasy—the cat talks to kami, becomes a woman, meets a boy who was a fox and a woman who was his nurse—but her own story is oppressively mundane. She says how much she’d have liked to have seen the things the cat-woman sees, and how most of what she has seen in her life is the inside of well-painted screens. The cat-woman begins as a cat, nameless, and finds a name and someone to be as she goes on, Harueme comes nearer the end of the story and the end of her life as she has known it. And that’s it, really. The charm of Fudoki is all in the telling.

Even for people, changes can be this arbitrary and extreme. Yesterday I was a girl, living in my foster-father’s house, sneaking away from my attendants and kilting my robes to wade after frogs when he ordered the servant-boys to stop catching them for me. The sun sets, the sun rises, a palm walled carriage comes for me, and today I put on robes in tawny yellow and dark red to take my place at court, serving my half-brother the emperor. … In a single night I become unrecognisable, even to myself. … And today I am very old. And tomorrow I will die. Is this any less strange, any less arbitrary, and extreme, than that a cat becomes a woman?

It’s all beautifully written and with every detail of time and place exactly where it should be, like brushstrokes in a Japanese painting. This is one of the most accomplished books I’ve ever read.

The manner in which I make ink—the precise gestures of grinding the ink stick, adding water drop by drop, gathering and blending the two on a soft thick brush rolled against the ink stone—is always the same, whether I do it today or ten years ago or sixty, and it never fails to fill me with satisfaction—though this may be dispelled immediately afterwards when I drop the brush or find a long hair in the ink, or have absent-mindedly made it too runny and must fiddle to correct it. Still, there is that perfect instant of brush and ink.

The instant that I have made ink is closer to all the other times that I have made ink than to any other instant, even the moments surrounding it.

As you can tell, she has researched the detail and texture of the Japanese setting and treats it as natural, and you never feel that you’re suffering for her research. Every detail feels right—the padded silk robes for winter, the braziers, eating soup at midnight, the shrines along the road. Johnson clearly feels at home in the culture and the period. It’s interesting to read a fantasy novel that isn’t set in cod-Medieval Europe. It’s also brave of her to try this, and to try the unusual doubled narration as well, and to handle it all so effectively.

I first read Fudoki when it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2004, and this is my first re-read. I often think of a first re-read as the completion of reading a book. A first reading is a scrambling affair, needing to find out what happens, gulping it down. Reading it again knowing where it’s going and understanding what it’s doing, sipping it slowly, is generally when I find out what I really think of a book. Plot can drag me through on first reading and a second reading can expose how thin something is, or, more often, my own expectations get in the way of seeing what’s there the first time, I’m trying to figure everything out and can get in the way of my own enjoyment. I usually re-read within a year.

The reason I haven’t read Fudoki until now is because I lent it to my aunt and only recently got it back. My aunt doesn’t really read in genre at all, except for my books. But I have been able to lead her a little way into genre in recent years, and I thought she’d like Fudoki because it’s so beautifully written, and also about a cat. Unfortunately, I was wrong. She gave it to me back with a bookmark in it—two pages after the cat turns into a woman, she lost interest. It was, she said, too detached. Re-reading it now, I can see what she means. I don’t think it’s too detached, but it’s so polished and conscious, and the narrator is so close, that it’s hard to care as much for either Harueme or the cat-woman Kagaya-hime as I ordinarily would. I really like it, but it’s my head it appeals to more than my heart.

This was Johnson’s second book, after The Fox Woman, to which it is related, and which I haven’t read because I’ve never actually seen a copy. Since publishing Fudoki, Johnson has gone on to write a number of Hugo and Nebula and World Fantasy award-nominated short works. She recently mentioned finishing a new novel, which I’ll be very interested to read when it comes out.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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