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For today’s Sunday Salon I would like to share some thoughts about part 2 of Natsume Sōseki’s classic novel I Am a Cat, published in 1906. You’ll find other bookish news at the end of this post.
There comes a day when, unexpectedly, the first cool wind of autumn blows through the gaps torn in the sleeves of one’s kimono, making one feel a sniffling cold is surely on its way.
Although I enjoyed reading part 1, I am more enthusiastic about volume 2. The author seems to have gotten better at gripping attention from his readers and the chapters are better balanced.
In the beginning I got quickly immersed in the story and was pretty fascinated. Only towards the end I became a bit disinterested again; when the cat started a lot of ‘name-dropping’. Especially characters from Japanese culture, supposedly to give the story depth: “since Genzaemon warmed the room for laypriest Saimyoji,” “you just try to come down from a pine tree like a wolf on the fold in the headlong Yoshitsune style,” or “as pointless as Yoritomo’s gift of a solid silver cat to the unworldly Saigyo” (etc.).
Obviously the book was written for a Japanese audience; to me, being a Westerner, these references only have a superficial meaning. Worse is that I didn’t feel encouraged to google any of them — just because there were too many. Of course ‘Neko’, nor Natsume, wouldn’t have minded: both have not much regard for Westerners anyway — even ridiculing us, together with the way their fellow Japanese copied foreigners after bakumatsu (the ending of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy).
And why, while they’re about it, don’t they and their families stroll around Ueno Park in no more than that nakedness they so affect to love? It can’t be done, they say? But of course it can. The only reason they hesitate is not, I bet, because it can’t be done, but simply because Europeans don’t do it. The proof of my point is in their dusk behaviour. There they are, swaggering down to the Imperial Hotel, all dolled-up in those crazy evening dresses. What origin and history do such cockeyed costumes have? Nothing indigenous. Our bird-brained ladies flaunt themselves in goose-skinned flesh and feathers solely because that is the mode in Europe. Europeans are powerful, so it matters not how ridiculous or daft their goings on, everyone must imitate their daftest designs. [p.244]
Of course it occurred to me that the name-dropping I found tedious could be meant as satire — in real life I am bored accordingly by people who do so as I was now in I Am a Cat ;) And thankfully my patience was rewarded. After the tiresome bit came a lively scene in a sentō, a Japanese public bath house, that was much fun.
Of course, I can’t be sure that it actually is a bath, but I make the wild surmise that it can’t be anything else.
So, while I posited in my review of book 1 that I was only interested in the cat(s) of the story (finding the narrative about people regularly boring), I now really liked to read about human activities. How different!
When I wrote about my first graphic novel Coraline I spoke about ‘reading synchronisity’ with I Am a Cat. Whatdoyaknow? It happened again! Relating to part 1 as well as 2. Together with Coraline I bought The Best of Mutts for the 24 Hour Readaton and I only started reading it recently. Remember the scene about Neko getting his mouth stuck with mochi in I Am a Cat 1? Meet Earl & Mooch at Halloween!
Then I saw this gag where Mooch’s equilibrium is ruined by Earl.
It reminded me of another enjoyable story, in part 2 of I Am a Cat where our feline protagonist is exercising on the garden fence.
I was just about halfway home on my fourth time around when three crows, gliding down from the next-door roof, settled on the fence-top, side-by-side, some six short feet ahead of me. Cheeky bastards! Quite apart from the fact that they’re interrupting my exercise, such low-born, ill-bred, rain-guttersnipes have no right whatsoever to come tresspassing, indeed seemingly to start squatting, on my fence-property. So I told them, in terms of hissing clarity, to get lost. The nearest crow, turning its head toward me, appears to be grinning like a half-wit. The next one unconcernedly studies my master’s garden. And the third continues wiping his filthy beak on a projecting splinter of the fence bamboo. He had all too evidently just finished eating something rather nasty. I stood there balanced on the fence, giving them a civilized three minutes grace to shove off. I’ve heard that these birds are commonly called Crowmagnons, and they certainly look as daft and primitively barbarous as their uncouth nickname would suggest. Despite my coureous waiting, they neither greeted me nor flew away. Becoming at last impatient, I began slowly to advance; whereupon the nearest Crowmagnon tentatively stirred his wings. I thought he was at last backing off in face of my power, but all he did was to shift his posture so as to present his arse, rather than his head, toward me. Outright insolence! [..] I do not greatly care for the idea of being stuck here while a trey of brainless birds waits for whatever impulse will lift them into air. For one thing, there’s my poor tired feet. Those feathered lightweights are used to standing around in such precarious places so that, if my fence-top happens to please them, they might perch here forever. I, on the other hand, am already exhausted. This is my fourth time around today, and this particular exercise is anyway no less tricky than tightrope-walking. [..] I had just decided to hop down when the arse-presenting savage offered me a rudery. ‘Arseholes,’ he observed. His immediate neighbor repeated this coarse remark, while the last one of the trio took the trouble to say it twice. I simply could not overlook behavior so offensive. [..] I began slowly to advance. The crows, oblivious to my action, seem to be talking among themselves. They are exasperating! If only the fence were wider by five or six inches, I’d really give them hell. But as things are, however vehemently vexed I may feel, I can only tiptoe slowly forward to avenge my honor. Eventually, I reached a point a bare half-foot away from the nearest bird and was urging myself onward to one last final effort when, all together and as though by prearrangement, the three brutes suddenly flapped their wings and lumbered to hang a couple of feet above me in the air. The down-draught gusted into my face. Unsportingly surprised, I lost my balance and fell off sideways into the garden.
Kicking myself for permitting such a shameful mishap to occur, I looked up from the ground to find all three marauders safely landed back again where they had perched before. Their three sharp beaks in parallel alignment, they peer down superciliously into my angry eyes. [p.235-237]
I must say that I noticed some inconsistency in the cat’s views about tresspassing, like in the quote above or in the scene about Rickshaw Blacky that I transcribed in my earlier post. In volume 2, there’s a whole paragraph about the impossibility of tresspassing in Neko’s philosophy. It comes down to this (p.120):
What right, then, do human beings hold to decide that things not of their own creation nevertheless belong to them?
[..] there can be no possible justification for them prohibiting others from innocent passage in and out of so-called property.
But of course cats will always reason in their own advantage ;) I wonder what surprises volume 3 will bring. It needs to be read in the new year (!), before January 15th. For now, as promised, I present to you Kahimi Karie’s version of I Am a Kitten.
Since I Am a Cat is a Japanese Classic I’ve also admitted it to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge.
Other Bookish things
- The Best of Mutts, Patrick McDonnell
- Zijde (Silk), Alessandro Baricco
- The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
In the mail
- The Rapture, Liz Jensen (I loved The Ninth Life of Louis Drax)
- The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (recommended by Kazuo Ishiguro)
- Crime School, Carol O’Connell