Friday, 16 June 2017

Book Review: I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki upon from an outsider’s point of view much of human behaviour must seem rather strange, if not ridiculous and without purpose. And if this is true of what we do, how much more absurd must appear what we say! On certain occasions we even become aware of it ourselves. Who hasn’t ever been to a party feeling obliged to make small talk with even the dullest people? Boredom can drive us to embark on all kinds of more or less suiting pastimes. The arts, for instance, have always been very fashionable among the well-educated and better-off, while the world of academia may prefer highbrow debates on nothing at all to get a chance to show off. In the satirical classic I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki a highly sophisticated Tōkyo cat living in the household of a self-centred English teacher follows his master’s and his friends’ awkward artistic attempts and grotesque discussions.

Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石) was born Natsume Kinnosuke (夏目 金之助) in Babashita, Ushigome region, Edo, (today: Kikui, Shinjuku, Tōkyo), Japan, in February 1867. He went to Tōkyo Imperial University to become an architect, then graduated in English studies, though. Already as a student he wrote haïku, but worked as an English teacher in various schools and at university. His short stories combining to his debut novel I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である) brought the literary breakthrough. Much acclaimed novels like Botchan (坊っちゃん: 1906) and Kusamakura (草枕: 1906; also translated into English as The Three-Cornered World) followed. As from 1907 he was able to live off writing. Among his most notable works are the trilogy consisting of Sanshirō (三四郎: 1908), And Then (それから: 1909) and The Gate (: 1910) or the novel Kokoro (こゝろ: 1914). Natsume Sōseki died in Tōkyo, Japan, in December 1916. His unfinished novel Light and Darkness (明暗: 1916) appeared posthumously.

It’s Tōkyo in the early years of the twentieth century and at the beginning of his account the feline narrator formally introduces himself:
I Am a Cat. As yet I have no name. I’ve no idea where I was born. All I remember is that I was miaowing in a dampish dark place when, for the first time, I saw a human being. […]”
After a brief encounter with one of those poor students working for board and lodging known to eat cats occasionally, the freezing and half-starved kitten stumbles into a kitchen. A servant woman has flung him out already several times, when Sneaze, whom he calls his master from then on, allows him to stay for no better reason than wanting peace and quiet. The English teacher in his forties who is married with three daughters and all but well-off seems an incredibly stupid, inept and lazy creature to the cat. Sneaze doesn’t care about his family and passes his free time alone in his study pretending to work hard while in fact he just dozes or devotes himself to dilettante attempts at various arts. Any disturbance irritates him. It annoys him being forced one morning to lower himself to writing with his silly wife a list of things stolen in a burglary. When the students of the neighbouring private high school pester him fetching ever again their lost baseball from his compound, he gets into a rage and downright starts a war. He pretends to be sick, when his wife urges him to take her to a performance at the theatre-teahouse as promised.
“’[…]But much indeed as I want to take her, this icy shivering and frightful giddiness make it impossible for me even to step down from the entrance of my own house, let alone to climb up into a tram. The more I think how deeply I grieve for her, the poor thing, the worse my shivering grows and the more giddy I become.[…]’”
Sneaze’s friends who drop in regularly seem just as absurd to the cat. They are the bonvivant Waverhouse who likes to pull people’s legs inventing fantastic stories, playwright Beauchamp Blowlamp who seeks Sneaze’s support and young scholar Avalon Coldmoon who commits himself to bizarre research projects. Mostly they indulge in futile talk permeated with the wisdom of Western sages, sneers at traditional Japanese culture and mere prattle. And thus it goes for two years.

The first-person narrative I Am a Cat skilfully satirises the ways of Japanese intellectuals in the Meiji period (1868-1912) mirroring their overbearing attitude towards other social classes and even towards each other in the voice of an animal generally attributed with innate haughtiness. In fact, also the language of the nameless cat shows his deep disrespect for human kind, notably his master, although in English his mannerisms must necessarily be a poor imitation of the original Japanese ones because Western languages don’t offer the same variety of expression. Nonetheless, the translator did his best to capture the spirit that is conveyed too by the talking names of the main characters. But the author doesn’t only brand the arrogance of those belonging to the well-educated higher middle class. He shows them living in the clouds – or in an ivory tower, if you prefer –, out of touch with real life, deprived of meaning and blindly following a fashion that requires aping and praising Western life-style, and he still emphasises their other-worldliness making them discuss Coldmoon’s grotesque research. In a way, the book reminded me of Western literature from the same period that deals with decadence and degeneration. Still it’s different… and quite amusing.

It goes without saying that I enjoyed reading I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki although it wasn’t the kind of novel that I had expected. I anticipated something more feline, something more fable-like, maybe something more in a line with E. T. A. Hofmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (Lebensansichten des Katers Murr: 1819-1821) that I never read myself, though. However, to my great pleasure the debut novel of Natsume Sōseki – or rather his set of eleven interlinked short stories – turned out to be social critique from the point of view of a cat tired of life, one that is spiced with more than just a dash of irony and not very Japanese overall. The references to Western wisdom may be a bit too much sometimes, but for me it’s a timeless read that has lost none of its relevance. In fact, the portrait of well-educated higher middle class is still amazingly true. Highly recommended!

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  1. I loved it. Did you read it in English?
    I wonder about the characters's names, they've been translated. It was not the case in my French copy.(for once)
    I loved how he showed life in Tokyo and also the moments when the cat acted like a cat. (chasing mice. Strolling on the fence...)

    1. Yes, Emma, I read the English edition and the names of the main characters were indeed translated - Sneaze, the cat's master, and his friends Waverhouse, Beauchamp Blowlamp, Avalon Coldmoon and his "sweetheart" Opula Goldfield,...
      The scene of the cat balancing on the fence was really great, I agree. I didn't like the end, though. However tired the cat may have been of life, he didn't deserve such a tragic end! I reckon the Natsume Soseki felt that he had to get rid of his hero for good.

  2. Sounds delightful and entertaining!


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