A feel-good novel for fans of A Man Called Ove and The Rosie Project, about an eccentric, language-loving bachelor and the cat that opens his eyes to life’s little pleasures
The Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick:
“A delightfully absurd, life-affirming celebration. I literally stood up and cheered as I read the last page.”
When Samuel, a lonely linguistics lecturer, wakes up on New Year’s Day, he is convinced that the year ahead will bring nothing more than passive verbs and un-italicized moments—until an unexpected visitor slips into his Barcelona apartment and refuses to leave. The appearance of Mishima, a stray, brindle-furred cat, becomes the catalyst that leads Samuel from the comforts of his favorite books, foreign films, and classical music to places he’s never been (next door) and to people he might never have met (a neighbor with whom he’s never exchanged a word). Even better, the Catalan cat leads him back to the mysterious Gabriela, whom he thought he’d lost long before, and shows him, in this international bestseller for fans of The Rosie Project, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, and A Man Called Ove, that sometimes love is hiding in the smallest characters.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Francesc Miralles is an award-winning author who has written a number of books, including, with Héctor García, the international bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. Born in Barcelona, he studied journalism, English literature, and German, and has worked as an editor, a translator, a ghost-writer, and a musician. Love in Lowercase has been translated into twenty languages.
Read an Excerpt
Sea of Fog
In no time at all the year was going to end and the new one was about to begin. Human inventions for selling calendars. After all, we’re the ones who’ve arbitrarily decided when the years, months, and even hours start. We shape the world in our own measure, and that soothes us. Under the apparent chaos, maybe there really is order in the universe. However, it certainly won’t be our order.
I was putting a minibottle of cava and a dozen grapes on the table—one for each stroke of midnight, as is the custom in this country—and thinking about hours. I’d read somewhere that the battery of a human life runs down after 650,000 hours.
Considering the medical history of the males in my family, I calculated that my best life expectancy in terms of hours was lower than the average: 600,000 at most. At thirty-seven, I could very well be halfway through. The question was, how many thousands of hours had I wasted so far?
Until just before midnight on that 31st of December, my life hadn’t exactly been an adventure.
The only member of my family was one sister I rarely saw. My existence alternated between the Department of German Studies and Linguistics, where I am an assistant lecturer, and my dreary apartment.
Outside my literature classes, I had very little contact with other people. In my spare time, when I wasn’t preparing for classes and correcting exams, I did the typical things a boring bachelor does: read and reread books, listen to classical music, watch the news, and so on. It was a routine in which the biggest thrill was the odd trip to the supermarket.
Sometimes, I gave myself a treat on weekends and went to the Verdi movie complex to see a foreign film. I came out as lonely as when I went in, but at least it was something to do at the end of the day. Then, tucked in bed, I read the information sheet the Verdi supplied about the film, listing the credits, quoting praise from the critics (never anything negative), and offering interviews with the director or actors.
None of this ever changed my opinion of the film. Then I switched off the light.
That was when a strange sensation took over, the idea that there was no guarantee I was going to wake up the next morning. Worse, I’d get even more anxious when I started calculating how many days or even weeks would go by before somebody realized I’d died.
I’d been brooding about this ever since I read in some newspaper that a Japanese man had been found in his apartment three years after his death. Everything suggested that no one had missed him.
Anyway, going back to the grapes . . . While I was thinking about wasted hours, I counted out the twelve grapes and set them out on a plate, next to which I’d placed the champagne glass and the minibottle. I’ve never been much of a drinker.
Having turned on the TV and tuned in to one of those programs that link up with some famous clock or another, I opened the bottle six minutes before the chimes of midnight began to ring out. I didn’t want the new year to catch me unawares. I think the festivities were in Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Behind the pair of beautiful, glamorous hosts, an excited crowd was popping champagne corks. Some people were singing or jumping, waving their arms in the air in the hope that the cameras would capture them.
When people are lonely, they amuse themselves in very strange ways.
Midnight finally came, and I observed the ritual by putting one grape into my mouth with each chime. As I took a mouthful of cava and tried to wash down the grapes that were clogging up my throat, I couldn’t help feeling ridiculous about having fallen into the trap of tradition. Who said I had to take part in that routine?
I decided it was a waste of time, so I wiped my mouth with a napkin and turned off the TV.
I could hear loud laughter and fireworks on the street as I undressed and got ready for bed.
How childish they are. I switched off the light on yet another day.
I had trouble getting to sleep that night. I usually sleep with earplugs and mask, so it wasn’t because of the noise outside, which was considerable, since I live between two squares in the bustling neighborhood of Gràcia.
For the first time in that festive season I felt lonely and vulnerable. I wanted the whole Christmas farce to end—and the sooner the better. I had five quiet days ahead, so to speak. Then, on January 6th, the Epiphany and last day of the Christmas holidays, I was going to have lunch with my sister and her husband, who’s been depressed ever since I’ve known him. They don’t have children.
It’ll be a nightmare. Thank heavens everything will be back to normal on January 7th.
Comforted by this, I could feel my eyelids closing. But would they open again?
I’m already in the new year. But there’s nothing new about it. That was my last thought.
I went to sleep, not knowing how wrong I was.
A Saucer of Milk
I got up early with the feeling that the whole city, except for me, was asleep. The silence was so intense that, although I was still in my pajamas, I had the guilty feeling that I was committing a crime by making myself a slice of buttered toast when most human beings were still sleeping off their hangovers.
I didn’t suspect that the new year had a surprise in store for me—a small surprise, but one with world-shattering consequences. The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can cause a cataclysm on the other side of the world. A hurricane was now roaring in to blow down the façade behind which I’d confined my life. There is no weatherman who can forecast this kind of cyclone.
I turned on the gas, made some coffee, and swallowed the last mouthful of toast. Then I started to plan my day while I got dressed, which is what I usually do. I feel lost if I don’t program my day, even on holidays.
I didn’t have much choice. One possibility was to correct the essays of the stragglers who’d handed in their work just before Christmas rather than on December 1st as I’d asked, in order to have time to correct them. I decided against it.
I thought I might watch part of the New Year’s concert, even though I’m not crazy about waltzes. In any case, I had a couple of hours before it began.
I washed my face with a generous splash of water. Then it was time to comb my hair. I immediately spotted a new gray hair, which must have appeared overnight. I was certain it hadn’t been there the day before.
OK, I know gray hairs are a sign of wisdom. I pulled it out with some tweezers. But I don’t want people to know I’m so wise.
Gray hairs depress me more than hair loss. After all, if a hair falls out, there’s always the chance that it will grow again and maybe even stronger. However, if it goes gray, there’s no use hoping it will go black again, at least not naturally. On the contrary, the most probable thing is that it will turn completely white.
Assailed by these gloomy thoughts, I went into the living room. Walking past the telephone, I glanced at it forlornly. It hadn’t rung on New Year’s Eve—and neither had it made a peep on Christmas Eve, or on the morning of Christmas Day. Nothing led me to believe that things might change on January 1st.
Then again, that wasn’t so surprising. I hadn’t phoned anyone either.
I sat on the couch thinking I’d dive back into a book by an American writer whom I’d found quite entertaining the last few days. I’d bought it on Amazon after seeing it mentioned in a novel. It’s called They Have a Word for It, and it’s an odd dictionary of expressions that exist in only one language.
According to its author, Howard Rheingold, finding the name for something means ensuring its existence. We think and behave in certain ways because we have words to underpin what we’re doing. In this sense, words shape thoughts.
Some examples of these unique words are:
Baraka: in Arabic, spiritual energy that can be used for worldly ends.
Won: the Korean word for the reluctance to give up an illusion.
Razblyuto: in Russian, the feeling one has for someone she has loved but no longer loves.
Mokita: the Kiriwina word for the truth that everyone knows but no one ever utters.
The author also mentions the Spanish word ocurrencia. I would never have thought that this was untranslatable.
I saw that there were a lot of entries in German, since—as long as certain rules are respected—anyone can construct new words in this language. One example it gave was Torschlusspanik (literally, panic at the closing of a door), the dismay of a childless woman faced with the irreversible ticking of the biological clock.
From what I could see, Japanese was the language with the most subtle nuances, with expressions like Ah-un for the tacit understanding between two friends, or my favorite one: Mono no aware, to denote the pathos of things.
As I was pondering that last entry, I realized that I’d been hearing a persistent noise for several minutes. It was a slow, steady crunching sound, as if some insect was gnawing its way through the door.
I turned off the music to get a clearer idea of where the aggravating sound was coming from. It stopped that very moment, as if the culprit realized it had been detected.
Shrugging it off, I went back to the couch and picked up the book, but before I could focus on the page the noise started again, much louder.
It can’t be an insect—not a normal-sized one, at least.
I listened harder and, yes, it seemed that the rasping was coming from the door. I went over to it warily, wondering what kind of lunatic would scratch at someone’s door. Then I remembered that there is a monstrous creature in Bantu mythology, the palatyi, which does exactly that.
Man or monster, whatever it was, if it wanted to rattle me, it was succeeding. In any case, it had heard my footsteps and, by the time I was standing there, facing the door, it was scratching at the wood even more frantically.
Spurred on by fear, I flung the door open, hoping to startle my enemy.
But no one was there.
To be more precise, there was no human being visible at eye level. Bewildered and staring at the empty landing, I felt something soft and warm coiling around my legs.
I instinctively jumped backward and then looked down to see what had been attacking my door. It was a cat, which greeted me with melodious meowing—a young cat, but bigger than a kitten: a tabby, like millions of other cats that run around and climb things in this world.
The cat tried to placate me by rubbing against my legs more energetically, weaving a series of horizontal eights or Möbius strips—the symbol of infinity.
“That’s enough,” I said, and nudged the cat away with my ankle, trying to ease it back onto the landing.
But it came back inside and stared at me defiantly.
Overcoming the feeling of revulsion I’ve always had for cats, I picked it up, fearing that it might try to claw at me, but it only uttered a high-pitched meow.
“Off you go now,” I ordered, throwing it unceremoniously onto the landing.
No sooner had it landed than the nimble creature dashed back inside before I could close the door.
I was losing my patience.
For a moment, I considered chasing it out with a broom, which is what my late father would have done in such circumstances. Perhaps it was an act of insubordination from this side of the grave, or a scrap of leftover Christmas spirit, but in the end I decided to give it a saucer of milk so it could fill its belly and stop bothering me.
I thought the cat would follow me to the kitchen, but it chose to wait by the front door, watching me hopefully.
I poured some milk into the saucer and walked slowly back down the corridor, trying not to spill it. When I got to the door the cat wasn’t there.
Since I’d left the door slightly ajar, I assumed the cat, feeling ignored, had left. Cursing the animal for making me fetch milk for nothing, I put the saucer down and looked out onto the landing to see if I could spot it.
Not a trace.
It must have gone off to try its luck at the other apartments.
I’m a rational, pragmatic man, and I don’t like whimsical behavior. I’d brought milk for the cat; therefore the cat had to drink it. I started calling it—Kitty, Kitty, Kitty—but it didn’t appear.
Fed up with playing a role that was strange to me, I left the saucer on the landing and closed the door.
The Sorrows of Young Werther
Lunchtime and the afternoon went by without any more surprises. I kept dipping into the dictionary, looking for strange words. Then I watched part of the New Year’s concert but, irritated by the cheesy images of young couples holding hands and watching the snow falling outside a window, I turned off the TV.
My conscience reminded me that I had to do a bit of work, in order to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that I was wasting my time. This meant I had to get down to correcting the essays of my laggard students.
I’d given them an easy assignment: they had to write a two-page summary of Goethe’s most popular novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. The title has been translated as The Sufferings of Young Werther and The Sorrows of Young Werther. I preferred the latter version, perhaps because that was the one I’d owned before reading it in German.
The story, written in epistolary form, is well known. Young Werther moves to the idyllic village of Wahlheim, where he intends to enjoy a peaceful life of reading and painting. However, at a ball organized by the local youth, he meets Charlotte—Lotte to her friends—and falls madly in love with her. Although Lotte is engaged to another man, Werther visits her frequently in the hope that she will return his love. His passion grows, as tends to happen when love is unrequited. Taking the advice of his friend and confidant Wilhelm, Werther leaves the village and takes a job as an ambassador’s secretary. However, he can’t stand the frivolity of his new life, so he returns to Wahlheim where, faced with the impossibility of loving the now married Lotte, he commits suicide by shooting himself.
Told like this, it might sound like a corny melodrama, but Goethe gives the whole story an existential feel. In the end, one has the impression that Werther’s fervent love for Lotte is just an excuse, because the fact of the matter is that he’s bored with life.
This, at least, is my interpretation. My students think differently. More than two centuries later, all of them, male and female, love the book. Perhaps it’s because they’re at an age when love can still be idealized.
My students like it when I tell them about the furor it caused in its day. In less than two years, it was translated into twelve languages, Chinese among them—an extraordinary thing at the time. The work inspired a particular way of being, which was taken up all around the world. Legions of romantics got dressed up in blue coats and yellow vests and, like Werther, wept copiously and wrote desperate letters to their beloveds. Even Napoleon claimed to have read the book seven times, and that he always had it with him on the battlefield.
Imitating their hero, hundreds of young men killed themselves, and in some cities—Leipzig, for example—the novel was banned.
Werther is largely responsible for the idea of romantic love that survives to this day. It is a magnificent work, even though some of Werther’s antics are laughable. I suspect that Goethe himself had a little giggle as he was writing some of those lines.
The freezing night had misted up the windows of my kitchen, where I was cooking dinner in silence. I’ve never liked the end of the day, because its waning seems to forebode my own decline. That is when loneliness bites most viciously with its invisible fangs.
As I cooked a potato omelet in my single-serving frying pan, I wondered why things had never worked out with any of my girlfriends. The last one was years ago. She was a lovely blonde, and her only problem was that she already had a boyfriend, although it took me months to discover that. In the end, her brother felt sorry for me and, taking me aside one day, advised me to bail out.
“She doesn’t want to be with either of you,” he warned. “If she loved her boyfriend, she wouldn’t have gotten involved with you, and if she loved you, she would have left her boyfriend immediately.”
A very simple deduction that threw me back onto my lonely path.
Werther had at least one trusty friend, Wilhelm, and he could talk about his troubles with him. I didn’t even have that.
I suppose I stopped socializing out of fear of being let down again. As an adolescent I got fed up with doing what other people wanted, only to be left high and dry when I needed them. Then again, it’s not easy to find people with whom you can have a vaguely interesting conversation.
I turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial until I found a music program. They were broadcasting a jam session from Tokyo. The audience started to applaud just as I finished flipping my omelet.
Interpreting the clapping as an ovation for the cook, I bowed a couple of times to show my appreciation and then went back to my dinner.
I was in bed by eleven with the lights off, although I was still listening to the broadcast. Four great masters of jazz played with a fifth who was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his first concert on that stage.
Staring at the dark ceiling and listening to the competing virtuosi, I suddenly remembered the dead Japanese man.
I started to feel anxious. Maybe he fell ill during the night, but there was nobody around to help him. That must be why they say that married men live longer than bachelors. For example, if I had a heart attack right now . . .
A strange sensation in my chest left me breathless. Fumbling for the phone, I felt cold drops of sweat running down my forehead. I knocked the handset onto the floor. Trembling all over, I managed to turn on my bedside light. Then I saw them.
Two round green eyes, staring at me.
It must have hidden somewhere in my apartment, but now it was sitting on my chest, gazing at me as if seeking answers.
“You bastard!” I shouted, leaping out of bed as the cat fled into the living room. “I nearly had a heart attack!”
The situation demanded that I resort to extreme measures, so I grabbed the broom from the kitchen and sprang into the living room like a wild beast, determined to drive out the intruder.
I leaned the broom against the wall and checked every corner without success. I did the same in the bedroom. The cat wasn’t hiding among the blankets or under the bed or in the slightly open closet.
My second search of the living room was as fruitless as the first, and I scoured the whole apartment with the same result. The cat was clearly a genius when it came to hiding and wasn’t going to make my life easy.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of deep weariness. A shooting pain in my back warned me to stop stooping over and forced me back into bed.
“I’ve lost the battle but not the war,” I proclaimed aloud. “Tomorrow I’m going to turn the place upside down. I’ll get you in the end. Just you wait and see.”
I got into bed and fell asleep almost at once. I didn’t even turn off the radio. The jam session had finished.
I woke up with a strange vibrating feeling in my breastbone. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that this wasn’t a warning sign of a heart attack.
To my great surprise I saw that the cat was curled up, placidly asleep on my chest.
“You’re a stubborn animal,” I said, wondering if I should throttle it there and then.
Almost out of curiosity, I stroked its short, soft fur. The cat revved up its purring and opened its sleepy eyes. Then it began to stretch, raising its back and shifting its paws, and ended up sitting on my belly. It was still purring and seemed to be smiling.
Can a cat smile?
After breakfast, I decided that the intruder could stay until the animal shelter opened. I found the number in the phone book but, when I called, a tinny voice informed me that they were closed until January 7th.
Then I remembered that I’d seen a pets section in the Pennysaver.
It could be an option in case the shelter won’t take it. I rummaged around in my storage room, trying to find an old copy of the paper, which I’d occasionally consulted when I wanted to buy second-hand furniture.
I phoned the number, and an affected voice promptly answered. I mentioned the section in which the ad would appear and dictated: “Almost new cat. Free of charge. Excellent condition. Phone afternoons.”
I thought a touch of humor might help to find a home for the animal. It seemed that the operator didn’t agree.
“Is that all?” he asked after jotting down my phone number.
“I think so.”
“I can’t take this ad as it is. What about its shots?”
“What?” I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“We only take ads for vaccinated animals. The paper can’t be held responsible in case of infection. You need to make it clear it’s had its shots.”
I was about to confess that I didn’t know whether the cat was vaccinated or not, but bit my tongue.
“It’s been vaccinated,” I lied. “Put that at the end of the ad.”
According to the operator, I was in luck. They were closed that day, but they’d publish my ad on January 8th. I decided I would postpone my trip to the animal shelter for another week after that date. I needed time to see if some charitable soul would take the cat. And anyway, there was still the issue of its vaccinations. Anyone who came would want to see the certificates.
The cat was now comfortably installed on the couch, observing me as I pondered all these questions. Without changing its elegant pose, it studied my movements around the living room, restlessly flicking its tail.
Since I tend to deal with bothersome chores as quickly as possible, I picked up the phone book again, this time to find a vet. There were several clinics, and one was quite close to my place, so I called to book an appointment.
A brusque female voice answered.
“Your reason for the visit?”
“It’s for a cat. It needs a vaccination certificate.”
“Samuel de Juan.”
“And the cat?”
This took me unawares. Must all animals have a name? I was standing next to a bookshelf full of novels, and my eyes lit on The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
“Mishima,” I said.
The cat gave a loud meow, as if it was happy to be named after a Japanese writer who committed suicide by hara-kiri.
“What did you say?”
I spelled out the name, realizing that I was now faced with a logistical problem. How was I going to take the cat to the vet? It had proved to be very good at disappearing, and I had no wish to chase it around the streets. I explained my problem to the woman on the other end of the phone.
“You’ll need a transporter box.”
“A . . . transporter box? What is that?”
Mishima seemed to be relishing the situation. The rate of tail flicks per minute had risen considerably.
The woman informed me that it was an authorized container for carrying animals. She suggested I should come to the veterinary center to buy one and then bring the cat back in it.
“That’s too much running around,” I said, irritated. “I can’t waste the whole day on a cat. Is there any other way?”
“A home visit—but that’s a lot more expensive.”
“That’s fine. I want to get this over and done with as soon as possible.”
“I’ll have to come myself,” was her sharp reply. “I’m on call now. Would lunchtime suit you?”
I said it would and took the opportunity to order all the cat paraphernalia I needed: bowl, food, litter, tray—and the transporter box too.
The doorbell rang at two thirty, and I knew it must be the vet because I never have visitors. When I opened the door, I was pleasantly surprised. The vet was an attractive woman of about thirty, short hair brushed back from her face, glasses. Her serious yet relaxed expression suggested that she was a no-nonsense kind of lady.
She’s just the sort of person I’d like to have as a friend.
I could picture myself having afternoon tea with her—hot chocolate and ladyfingers—in one of the old establishments in Carrer Petritxol.
“Well, shall we begin?” she said in a brisk tone, shattering my daydream. “I’m very busy today.”