Milena Michiko Flašar’s Mr Katō Plays Family is an eccentric second-lease-on-life novel for fans of A Man Called Ove and Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Mr Katō—a curmudgeon and recent retiree—finds his only solace during his daily walks, where he wonders how his life went wrong and daydreams about getting a dog (which his wife won’t allow). During one of these walks, he is approached by a young woman. She calls herself Mie, and invites him to join her business Happy Family, where employees act as part-time relatives or acquaintances for clients in need, for whatever reason, if only for a day.
At first reluctant, but then intrigued, he takes the job without telling his wife or adult children. Through the many roles he takes on, Mr Katō rediscovers the excitement and spontaneity of life, and re-examines his role in his own family. Using lessons learned with his “play families,” he strives to reconnect with his loved ones, to become the father and husband they deserve, and to live the life he’s always wanted.
Mr Katō Plays Family will be available on June 20th, 2023. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
When they tell him that everything looks to be in order—no abnormalities, no red flags, in great shape for his age—he feels, along with relief, a secret disappointment. He had hoped they would find something. And this hope afforded him a sense of importance, albeit unconsciously, that they would find something and then do what needed to be done. Recommend a diet. Exercise. Three pills a day. Measures he had been looking forward to but still would have resisted at first, before ultimately following eagerly. But now? What is he supposed to do? They present him with their findings, he takes them.
Now is the point where he could bring up how hard it is for him to get up in the morning, but they are already leading him out of the exam room, back into the waiting room, where he wishes he could stay. It’s such a pleasant space. They clearly put a lot of time and effort into making it that way. On the walls are photos of babies in budding flowers, and oh, how he’d love to stay right here in front of them. Love to consider how on earth they managed to get inside, these babies with little butterfly wings. This is something else he could ask the doctor about, his tendency to sit and ponder question after question after question without any of it making sense, and whether that doesn’t fit with some illness or other, and the fact that he can’t get any peace from this barrage of questions, least of all in the morning, when this senselessness presses down on his chest the second he opens his eyes.
But maybe this is normal? Something to do with age? And maybe it will take some time—which, of course, he has plenty of now—to get used to? He takes his coat off the rack, dark gray, nearly black. In the shop where he bought it, they told him the color had a timeless elegance about it—at once both classic and modern—and, the cut, too, had a certain simplicity very much in vogue but at the same time traditional and—
But none of this mattered when it came down to it. He kept this thought to himself, just as he did the thought that this was likely the last jacket he would buy, the last shirt, the last pair of shoes. These things, he thought, were enough. He no longer needs anything more. And this filled him with a sense of contentment, knowing he had only modest requirements, but a wistfulness too, in having arrived at the point he had always believed was so far away, the day when he had no desire to own anything anymore. That time had come. Funny. He sees it now, but also sees that he should consider himself lucky. Healthy, that’s all that matters; stop looking at the clock, stop sighing, pull up the corners of your mouth. It almost hurts, the smile he puts on to leave the doctor’s office. Like a little facial spasm, which is how he imagines phantom pain would feel.
It was his wife who’d urged him to go and get examined from head to toe. She said he was better safe than sorry, though she never said that to him anymore, but mumbled it past him instead, into space: “It would be something for you to do, at least.” He hadn’t wanted to hear the little jab in her words at first. It was only later, half-asleep, that he found himself being lined up most inconsiderately in a row of other people who had nothing better to do than go once a month to the doctor to complain about their aches and pains with others just like them and thereby escape, at least temporarily, the loneliness at the heart of what they were describing.
He could see them now, cheerfully blabbing away about their ailments, which technically speaking weren’t ailments at all, and they knew this but clung to their pinching and stinging and smarting wounds anyway. “Pathetic!” With this word and the way he ejected it from his body—so to speak—he attempted to separate himself from the rest of them, but the more he repeated it, the weaker it sounded—“Pathetic! Pathetic! Pathetic!”—so that by the end, the word seemed to implicate him as well. And what hurt wasn’t knowing that he belonged with them but rather the isolation that belonging to them implied. His lying in bed listening carefully for a movement on the other side of the wall, and knowing precisely because of the slightest creak that his wife was still awake. Knowing nothing more about her than that. And that he was not in a position to call out to her. The only thing that felt familiar anymore, the only thing binding them together, was the distance between them.
And now? He makes it look like he has a destination in mind. He sets off with great big strides, as if there’s someone waiting for him and it’s of the utmost importance that he arrives in a timely manner. He’s tried going for walks, simply that, walking for the sake of walking—can’t do it. The problem is his hands; he doesn’t know what to do with them. When he sticks them in his pockets, it makes him feel like a student playing hooky, and when he lets them dangle, well, then he feels like a runaway monkey who just wants to get back to his cage.
And what’s the point anyway? Of walking? His wife says it’s so that his joints don’t rust over from disuse. She sends him out of the house every day so he can go around a few blocks. Though he knows her well enough to understand what she really means, which is to get out of her way. So that’s why he’s gotten used to it; it’s not such a terrible way to pass the time after all. The only thing is he doesn’t walk, he runs—that distinction is important to him. If only he had a dog! Then walk—absolutely! A white Pomeranian he could pull along behind him, one of those fantasies that makes him forget to breathe for a minute, that’s how much it cheers him, imagining holding a leash pulled tight. But okay, he understands.
His wife made him understand: first of all, a dog costs money; second, you fall head over heels for the animal and get too attached. It’s childish. Third: no more vacations. Fourth: the mess. And fifth: at some point, he’s going to die. What then? To which he replied—because it was the smallest thing compared to money, love, and death, and because he at the very least wanted to be right about this smallest thing—that they never went on vacation anyway, which made her laugh, and him too, but then suddenly she stopped, and so did he, and they spent the rest of the day in uncomfortable silence. He never mentioned the white Pomeranian again, and he makes an effort to think of it as little as possible. But sometimes it does happen, like when he was eating, for example, and his wife seemed to be able to tell just by the way he requested a little bit more salt. It’s nice, actually: they make a good team. He thinks of something. She notices. He notices that she notices. And even if neither of them says a word about it, it’s the same as if they were yelling to each other across the table.
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