‘A Cat, a Man, and Two Women’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

I’m a keen follower of Stu Allen’s #TranslationThurs hashtag on Twitter (highlighting what everyone’s up to in the world of literature in translation), but over the past couple of months, I could have added a hashtag of my own.  Every Thursday since mid-December, I’ve posted a review of a Jun’ichirō Tanizaki review here on the blog, and today sees the eighth consecutive edition of #TanizakiThurs (with at least one more to come).  After looking at so many of his books, you’d think I’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now, but rest assured that there’s still some quality to come from the Japanese legend 🙂

A Cat, A Man, and Two Women (translated by Paul McCarthy, review copy courtesy of New Directions) is a recent rerelease of three of Tanizaki’s works, the titular novella and two short stories dating from early in his career.  All excellent pieces, they’re enhanced further by McCarthy’s short preface, in which he touches on certain aspects of the stories the average reader may have missed.  This is the third of New Directions’ Tanizaki books, but it has more in common with some of the stories in the two University of Michigan Press fiction releases (The Gourmet Club: A Sextet and Red Roofs & Other Stories).

The earliest piece here is the 1918 story ‘The Little Kingdom’.  After a short introduction showing how Kaijima Shokichi, a talented yet impoverished teacher, ended up in the provinces, the story steps up a gear with the arrival of a new student in his class, Numakura Shokichi.  Kaijima initially thinks little of the docile boy, yet before long he’s astonished to see how he effortlessly manages to rule the roost in the playground.  The real shock comes, though, when the teacher attempts to punish Numakura in the classroom, only to find the whole class desperate to come to their leader’s aid:

“Sir.”  Yet another student rose to his feet.  “If you’re going to make Mr. Numakura stand there, let me stand with him.”  To the teacher’s amazement, it was Nakamura, a gifted student and head of the class.
“What?”  Kajima was stunned, and found himself relaxing his grip on Numakura’s shoulder.
“Sir, let me stand with him too!”  One after the other, five or six pupils left their seats and moved forward to form a small group around the podium.  Then came almost every student in the class, pressing forward and surrounding the teacher, all of them repeating “Me too, sir, me too!”
‘The Little Kingdom’, p.114 (New Directions, 2015)

Realising that he’s out of his depth, Kaijima instead allows Numakura to exert his power over the class.  Little does he know that he may even need the boy’s help himself at some point…

‘The Little Kingdom’ can be seen as a controlled examination of the allure of a benevolent dictator, with Kaijima accepting a loss of power (and the presence of ‘investigators’) in exchange for a quiet life.  The set-up, with a newcomer arriving at a school in the sticks, has much in common with Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan or Yi Mun-yol’s Our Twisted Hero, but the catalyst for the piece can be found much closer to home.  You see, in Childhood Years: A Memoir, Tanizaki describes how a new student at his primary school was the inspiration for the story, with many of the events related (including the introduction of a class currency) taken from real life.  Real, invented, or a mix of the two, it makes for an excellent story 🙂

The next story is a rather different affair from the innocent pleasures of school life.  In ‘Professor Rado’ (1925), a reporter visits an ageing academic for an interview which goes rather awkwardly (mainly because the indolent professor has no interest in the whole affair).  However, the journalist sees a very different side to his host when he sneaks around the house and looks through a window.  Let’s just say that the good professor is far more alert and excitable now…

Three years later, Tanizaki brought the characters back for another brief sketch, with the journalist bumping into Rado at a musical variety show.  While he’s more talkative this time around, the professor has lost none of the energy he showed at the end of the first story, engaging the writer in a quest to find out more about one of the dancers.  It’s all typical Tanizaki fun, with the author continuing his exploration of the erotic while at the same time poking fun at stuffy, over-serious academics – what’s not to like?

Of course, those two stories are merely the side dishes for the main course, the 1936 novella ‘A Cat, a Man, and Two Women’.  This one begins with a letter in which, Shinako, the ex-wife of a certain Shozo, makes an unusual request of her successor, Fukuko.  The object of her desire isn’t the man they both married, or any household item, but rather Lily – Shozo’s cat.

Sensing that Shinako is up to something, Fukuko initially decides to ignore the letter, but changes her mind when she realises how close Shozo is to his pet, and how much inconvenience the cat causes her:

The odds were, in fact, that he really did feel closer to Lily than to either of his wives.  As it happened, he had only been married to Shinako for a total of two and a half years, spread over four calendar years.  And Fukuko had been in the household barely a month.  Naturally, then, it was Lily, with whom he’d lived so long, who was more intimately bound up with many memories of his; who formed, in fact, an important part of Shozo’s past.
‘A Cat, a Man, and Two Women’, p.39

Fed up of having to cook for Lily (and of sharing her bed with her feline rival), Fukuko insists that Shozo choose between her and his pet, leaving the poor man devastated.  Quite apart from his affection for his cat, he can’t help feeling that he’s betraying his companion of more than a decade by letting her go, and (as Shinako planned all along), he eventually feels compelled to pay Lily a visit…

In a clever story, the cat is merely a plot device to examine the relationships between husband and wife (and ex-wife), mother and son, and daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, making for a comical web of intrigue where Shozo (another of Tanizaki’s army of completely ineffectual men) is the only one who doesn’t really get what’s going on.  Shinako’s plan isn’t the first time he’s been duped in love; we gradually learn that his marriage to Fukuko was also cunningly arranged.  By the end of the story, the only surprise for the reader is that he somehow managed to attract not one, but two wives given that he lavishes all his attentions on Lily.

However, despite doing little more than sleep, eat and sulk, the cat is very much the star of the show, acting as a catalyst allowing the human characters to show a different side to their personalities.  Shozo’s few positive traits come out when he thinks of Lily, and we eventually see that he has a caring, compassionate side.  This is also true for Shinako.  While initially only wanting the cat to get revenge for the way her ex-husband’s family treated her, she soon finds herself enjoying Lily’s company.  She only saw the drawbacks of having a cat during her time with Shozo, but now she begins to appreciate the companionship and warmth that a pet can bring.

‘A Cat, A Man, and Two Women’ runs to about a hundred pages, and while there’s no real conclusion to the story, overall it’s an excellent and entertaining look at a tangled relationship both complicated and exposed by the addition of our feline friend.  McCarthy’s insightful preface gives a little background to the piece, too, explaining some of the autobiographical elements present (while not a complete parallel, Tanizaki’s own marriage woes influenced the writing of the novella).  When you throw in the other two stories, it makes for a book well worth checking out, and another #TanizakiThurs well spent.

I wonder what next week will bring… 😉

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