‘It is painfully easy to define human beings. They are beings who, for no good reason at all, create their own unnecessary suffering.’
I’d like to start by saying, don’t be deterred by the title, despite that it sounds like something from the oeuvre of Dr Seuss. This book is in fact near 500 pgs in length and narrated by one suspiciously eloquent cat. The title is also allegedly a tricky one for translators; the term of self-address in Japanese is apparently most akin to our regal plural, which (to my knowledge) isn’t really in use anymore (though who knows what goes on in those corridors of power?). Basically, the original Japanese carries a more deeply ridiculous tone, not fully conveyed by “I Am a Cat.” I would suggest “One Is a Cat” as another possible title but then, I’m not a translator and don’t know more than a smattering of Japanese. I’ve also smattered my fair share of English (“resin” and “hyperbole” spring to mind), so we’ll let it lie for now. Natsume Sōseki was, contrariwise, proficient in both languages and had even studied in London briefly – something rare in an era when Japan had only just joined in the world soirée and had yet to break the ice with a good quip.
There is every possibility that I Am a Cat was Sōseki’s good quip at the expense of his own countrymen, and perhaps even himself. We have a cat without a name – a mewling stray taken into the household of Mr Sneaze, a teacher of English and, in the words of his own cat, a pretty feeble specimen of his unperceptive kind. Through the cat’s eyes we receive impressions of the world: Sneaze’s family, Sneaze’s friends and callers, and of course other neighborhood cats like Rickshaw Blacky and Tortoiseshell. I’m not sure how these names have been translated from Japanese but they often come across as highly eccentric when organised Sneaze’s closest friends are a young scientist named Avalon Cold-moon (contender for the best name in fiction) and an aesthete named Waver-house a Wildean figure who, as the cat tells us, would interrupt the announcement of his own death sentence just to hear his own beautiful voice. Waver-house can submerge any awkward silence with a well-placed witticism or completely misguide a conversation, usually for his benefit and ours. In them and other figures (Beauchamp, Singleman Kidd, Suzuki) we are let, like the nameless cat, to eavesdrop on what is mostly scholarly chitchat, or childish gossip. In fact, that is most of the book.
I Am a Cat is hence mostly set in Sneaze’s cony drawing room, though it does venture out with the cat occasionally, most notably to spy on a neighbor in the best interests of his master – or his own curiosity. This episode concerns also the planned marriage of Cold-moon to the neighbor’s daughter. Cold-moon in fact provides the novel’s closest semblance of an overarching plot. Sneaze also descends deeper into philosophical parquetry and misjudges his own and others’ mental wellbeing.
The cat at times goes to unusual depths in his narration, even relaying characters’ thoughts, but he does provide something of a rationale (even if it is all a fabrication, it’s a clever one):
‘I am a cat. Some of you may wonder how a mere cat can analyse his master’s thoughts with the detailed acumen which I have just displayed. Such a feat is a mere nothing for a cat. Quite apart from the precision of my hearing and the complexity of my mind, I can also read thoughts. Don’t ask me how I learned that skill. My methods are none of your business. The plain fact remains that when, apparently sleeping on a human lap, I gently rub my fur against his tummy, a beam of electricity is thereby generated, and down that beam into my mind’s eye every detail of his innermost reflections is reflected…’
Still, we may question the cat’s truthfulness at almost every turn of the page.
Other questions one might raise with the narrative are: How is the cat writing this book? He even addresses the readers of the magazine (the book was originally published serially). If there is an intermediary between the cat and the written word, who is it? Is it Sōseki? And how does he know what the cat is thinking? Sōseki is obviously crafting a work of fiction and so are we to question his aims in doing so? The cat also picks mistakes in the humans’ scholarly arguments: yet, how could a cat possibly be so well-read? He is, by the book’s end, at most 2 years of age. (though I believe he does give a brief rationale on the differing conversion rate of cat-time vs. human-time). The ending may also raise a further question, but I won’t go into that. Overall though, these pragmatic concerns aside, the novel is bursting with curious dialogues (Waverhouse’s vision of a future suicide epidemic), keen perceptions (‘Every time my master notices an increase in his children’s size, he becomes as nervous as if an inexorable pursuer were catching up behind him’), character interaction (the central trio play fantastically off one another) and plenty of hilarious asides. Coldmoon’s long-drawn-out anecdote about purchasing a violin is a masterpiece in frustration and must be read to be believed. I have not laughed this much over a novel in a long time. Also, the cat’s self-deifying claims (and there are a few) make for funny, memorable pauses in the narrative flow:
‘They say that every toad carries in its fore-head a gem that in the darkness utters light, but packed within my tail I carry not only the power of God, Buddha, Confucius, Love, and even Death, but also an infallible panacea for all ills that could bewitch the entire human race.’
Another episode that stands out in my mind is when Suzuki calls on Sneaze and, invited to go in the drawing room alone to wait, finds the cat sitting squarely on the cushion meant for him. The cat is wholly aware of Suzuki’s frustration and delights in it. It is a tense, silent, hilarious encounter:
‘Of course, if he’s really irked, he ought to jerk me off the cushion by the scruff of the neck. But he doesn’t… One would make oneself ridiculous, even a figure of farce, if one degraded oneself to the level of arguing with a cat.’
The novel moves from the heights of frivolity toward a subdued, melancholy ending as the gentlemen drink and relay ideas fundamental to the novel at large: mostly, the Westernisation of Japan, the negation of progress under individualism. Meiji-era Japan, its doors newly opened to the West, was starting to see change – in Sōseki’s eyes, a confused, deformed generation mimicking foreign customs, from broad concepts and whole lifestyles down to daily habits, becoming laughable in the process (at the school where he teaches, Sneaze is jokingly addressed as ‘Savage Tea’ after a transnational blunder for ‘coarse tea,’ kind of illustrative of Japan’s early, clumsy attempts at imitation). Singlemann, usually drowning introspective, observes in one of his rare moments of lucidity:
‘We sought freedom and now we suffer from the inconveniences that freedom can but bring. Does it not follow that, though Western civilization seems splendid at first glance, at the end of the day it proves itself a bane? In sharp contrast, we in the East have always, since long, long, long ago, devoted ourselves not to material progress but to development of the mind. That Way was the right way. Now that the pressures of individuality are bringing on all sorts of nervous disorders, we are at last able to grasp the meaning of the ancient tag that “people are carefree under firm rule.” And it won’t be long before Lao Tzu’s doctrine of the activating effect of inactivity grows to seem less of a paradox. By then, of course, it will be too late to do anything more than recognize our likeness to addicted alcoholics who wish they’d never touched the stuff.’
Beneath the surface of Sōseki’s comical cat narrative, as often in animal-based allegory, is a comment on his society. One might even view the cat as watching the absurdity, the strangeness of this human interplay, with the perceptiveness that only a strange set of eyes can provide; perhaps Sōseki’s perceptiveness of Western society, and his lament for his own.
Even if you have no familiarity with Japanese culture (and mine is minimal), I would thoroughly recommend this book. The Tutted edition compounds the three volumes into one convenient novel, and though there are more than a few typing gaffs and the occasional dubious word (accidental self-relativity at work?), it’s a smooth enough translation, reads easily and conveys its ideas with clarity. And maybe, just maybe, it will also change the way you look at our feline friends. Just remember, next time a cat steals your place on the sofa…