It can be hard to think outside the box when you’re as devoted to book lists and recommendations as I am. Still, sometimes I think I manage to read something a bit more unexpected. Take this autumn for example, when, falling in love with the Tuttle edition’s lovely cover, I decided that ‘I Am A Cat’ would be the perfect introduction to Sōseki’s writings. I know that his most famous book is ‘Kokomo’, a classic I’ve yet to begin, but sometimes some books just look too pretty to resist.
‘I am a Cat’ is an early twentieth century satire in which the feline narrator takes us through the mundane adventures in his life, nearly of all of which is spent at the home of an unimpressive schoolteacher. It probably goes without saying, but as a cat, he is an outsider in society and is in the perfect position to critique and expose its idiocies. The misanthropic schoolteacher has a whole collection of friends and neighbours who drop in and out of the loosely connected chapters. Each has their own theories of life and most have pretty selfish aims, some of which cat and master can see, but in general our two central figures are equally impotent when it comes to navigating complex relationships or societal pressures.
Personally, I can find satire of other cultures hard to enjoy. Because I’m also an outsider it has to be extremely heavy-handed for me to understand what is being mocked. This meant that I didn’t have the laugh-out-loud experience that I suspect was the expected response to the book. Still, there were things I could appreciate, not least the fact that his novel is contemporaneous with much of my Russian reading from last year. Specifically, it gave me a Japanese civilian perspective of the Russo-Japanese war. Based on this one novel, it does seem like the Japanese were less traumatised by the conflict, and it provided a very interesting contrast to Russian writings from the same period. Both Russia and Japan were very sensitive to Western influences conflicting with their traditional ideas and ways of life, and this book brought home to me how much reading Japanese contemporary literature could add to my enjoyment of my Russian favourites. For those who are more interested in Western European literature, it is also easy to see similarities between ‘I am a Cat’ and Flaubert’s ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’ as the schoolteacher attempts to master various cultural pursuits.
Another reason for wanting to read Sōseki’s first novel was that I thought it might be a good precursor for last year’s best seller ‘The Guest Cat,’ which I’ll be reviewing next in this mini-series of cats in Japanese books; there are some topics that just can’t fail to please!