Monday, November 3, 2008

A Brief Summary of "I am a Cat"

I am currently engaged in reading "I am a Cat" by Natsume Soseki and "The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Short Stories" by Yasunari Kawabata.

The Soseki book was the breakout novel for the author, who's face is featured on one of the yen bills in Japan. It's a long novel, 637 pages, and its rather a disappointment, considering the fact its considered a masterwork from one of Japan's finest. Granted, I've only reached page 80, but every review I've read indicates that not much changes, whether you're on page 80 or page 500. Much like 'Tale of Genji', the book follows no arc but for the line of chronological time. I suppose that, if a cat ever wrote a novel, this is what it would be like: a cat merely reporting on the day's events. It sleeps, catches a grass-hopper, eavesdrops on the master's conversation, eats, sleeps some infinitum. This is not to say it is not a fun novel. It is. But it can't be ranked as a literary achievement on the same order as Murakami's 'Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' for instance.

But the book isn't all fluff. It's deceptively simple, but a little reading between the lines reveals some salient social comment. The first thing that I noticed about the book is how strikingly un-Japanese it is. The cat's master, who is a some sort of teacher, convenes regularly with a group of academic friends named Coldmoon, Waverhouse, and Beauchamp. They make reference to William James, John Locke and the ancient Greeks. At first I wasn't sure what to make of this, but I eventually realized this is a calculated move on the author's part. Soseki lived during the height of the Meiji restoration, when Japan's feudal policies were being cleared out to make way for more Western practices. I think Soseki's portrait of academic life in this time as told from a cat's point of view is meant to show the lack of respect Japan was showing to its own cultural history. The master, who is left unnamed, is often dwarfed in the conversations by the prowess of his peers – Coldmoon, Waverhouse, etc. The master is meant to represent the little guy in Japan, one who is unwillingly being swept along in the influx of Western culture and practices.

Of course, Soseki's aims are more broad than this. He also attempts to show the overall selfishness of man by portraying human life through the objective eyes of a cat. A third theme is the silliness of academia, and its non-validity as a way of life. This comes across in the conversations between the master and his friends, who tell pseudo-profound stories to eachother, only to elicit that timeless vagary: "Interesting." In one hilarious scene, the master excitedly tells Waverhouse of a story he translated, saying its one of the finest pieces of prose he's ever read. Adopting the "tone of a Zen monk" he relates an American children's story, explaining with utter seriousness how "Kate threw the ball up. Then the ball came down."

I would like to return to what I have termed the "Un-Japanese"-ness of the novel. If you didn't know the context of the novel, you would think that it was set in 20th century England. I'm sure some of Soseki's Western over-the-top-ness is intentional, but I'm not so sure about all of it. Soseki spent two miserable years studying abroad in London. Perhaps here his style was mutated permanently.

No comments: