Review Post 20 – I am most definitely NOT a Cat

I am a dog, and my name is Genji. A fine Japanese name you may think, but it’s actually a rather teasing and cruel joke on behalf of my owners. Unlike my literary counterpart, I have not been able to roam the Emperor’s court, seducing courtesans and concubines; I have had to content myself with sitting at home on my cushion. Sometimes, it truly is a dog’s life…

As if that’s not bad enough, this week I have had to put up with the indignity of seeing one of my owners (the hairy one) reading a book about a cat: the cheek! The book is called I Am A Cat (an example of the feline ability to state the obvious) by a Japanese writer named Soseki Natsume, and as my hairy owner told my other owner (the pink one) all about what was happening (although she didn’t seem very interested – unless eye-rolling indicates interest in humans), I will be able to fill you all in on the story.

Despite its unfortunate title, Natsume’s book is not so much a story about a cat as an amusing series of anecdotes and long stories critiquing life in Japan just over a hundred years ago. The cat was chosen as a sort of objective observer through the eyes of which the reader is able to see the oddities and paradoxical behaviour of humans. Quite why Natsume chose a cat is beyond me (a dog would have done the job just as well – and with a lot less preening), but perhaps he wanted a self-important spiteful view of human social life – in which case a cat was a good choice.

The cat of the title (who never receives a name, classically Japanese or otherwise) observes the daily goings on and philosophical discussions of his owner, Mr. Sneaze, and his friends: the scholar Coldmoon, the poet Beauchamp Blowlamp, the philosopher Singleman Kidd and, most importantly, the layabout Waverhouse, a wonderful character who is as humorous and full of life as a whole litter of puppies. The hairy one, who considers himself a bit of an expert on all things Japanese, was a little confused by the English-sounding names but eventually concluded that it was the decision of the translator. Which I could have told him straight away (sometimes, he gets a little carried away looking for the complex explanation when an easy answer is staring him in the face).

In any case, the gentlemen in question, despite having jobs, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around on Mr. Sneaze’s living room floor telling tall tales which are either skilfully crafted philosophical metaphors (Mr. Hairy’s view) or inane rubbish (Miss Pink’s view, with which I heartily concur). I am reliably informed that the style is reminiscent of such works as Three Men in a Boat, The Pickwick Papers and, even, Thus Spake Bellavista with its mix of social commentary and existential conversation sessions. I will have to take Mr. Hairy’s word for it.

Apparently, the style is a little different to English writing (which surprises me – when I looked, the paper substance was covered with black marks, just like all the other books hanging around the house). The style is said to be more subtle without the classic structured stages of a story which are the norm for English, so the chapters appear to slip by without outlining an overall theme. Mr. Hairy believes that this is typical of Eastern rhetorical styles where the onus is on the reader to tease out the writer’s implied meaning, in contrast to the writer-responsibility rules of English writing. Mind you, he had already had a few glasses of wine when he said that, so I wouldn’t take him too seriously.

By this time, I was getting bored of this conversation (or, rather, monologue – from the snoring noises coming from the armchair on the other side of the room, Miss Pink may well have been asleep) and decided to go for a quick walk around the kitchen looking for any stray scraps in my food bowl (there weren’t any – life can be cruel sometimes). When I got back, Mr. Hairy was musing about the benefits of rereading this book more slowly in the future to absorb the ideas more fully; something about never crossing the same river twice. Which is just common sense: why would you cross the same river twice? You may as well just stay on the side you’re on if you’re only planning to come back again. If there is one thing I agree with the wretched cat on, it’s that humans are a funny bunch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for a nap. Any further questions can be directed to Mr. Hairy at the usual address.

*****

P.S. Mr. Hairy has asked me to add that this copy of I am a Cat was free! Apparently, he won it in a giveaway hosted by someone named Claire from Paperback Reader (which, I am informed, is another book blog). Most heartfelt thanks from Mr. Hairy. But not from me – I’m still annoyed about the cat…

11 thoughts on “Review Post 20 – I am most definitely NOT a Cat

  1. Genji is such an inspired name for you dog! Love it. Ours was Puccini (just because we loved the sound of it and we have a terrible sense of humour as a family). I'm planning to tackle this book for this year's Japanese Literature Challenge.

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  2. Sakura – I don't know why, but Genji was the first thing that popped into my head – and it suits him 😉

    Colleen – The perils of trying to be amusing; you forget that you're supposed to be actually reviewing the book… I liked this book a lot, but anyone expecting a novel would be a little confused. This is a collection of musings on life and society constructed in a framework of amusing conversations (as observed by a cat). It's definitely a book I will revisit and enjoy in a lesiurely fashion 🙂

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  3. I have just laid my paws on this book (courtesy and inter-library-loan). The furrst purrage purroved to be a very interesting translation of Cat to a second Human Language…I will continue purrowling through it this evening. A courteous miaou for directing me to it! 🙂

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  4. What an amusing review as it's narrated by a dog! I enjoyed it like a parody of I Am a Cat in which a cat is narrating a story. This is one of my most favorite novels by Soseki. I guess Soseki is inspired by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which things are observed from different perspectives ( and Soseki wrote an essay on Swift after going back from London ) I hope you'll reread it more slowly and enjoy Soseki's satire on Japanese society in those days. Thanks for such an interesting post!

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  5. estherhawdon – It's definitely a book I keep meaning to reread – unfortunately, rereading is something I don't do much of these days 😦 The Swift angle is interesting, but I think to appreciate the full nature of the book, you need to be aware of the history of the time too 🙂

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