“I am a cat. As yet I have no name.”
I Am A Cat was an accidental novel that I stumbled across in search of Japanese literature. I think I was shelving a book by Nicholas Sparks when I discovered it. Soseki Natsume was a 19th Century Japanese author who had spent some (disastrous) time in London studying. When he returned he wrote a short story, very much in the style of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, narrated by a cat. The reader meets this nameless cat as a kitten and he provides humorous yet poignant jests and criticisms of the middle class Meiji throughout his life.
Originally it seems that Natsume only intended to write one installment of I Am A Cat for a literary magazine, but as a result of popular demand he wrote three volumes. The cat is taken in by a professor and his family and the cat is privileged to witness the behavior of the family as well as the neighbors. You don’t have to be a cat lover to appreciate this book, but it was a hysterical experience to read the Cat’s antics, which so very much reminded me of my own cat. (Apparently 200 years has not diminished the nature of cats.)
The bulk of the first volume is about the quirks of the professor or Mr. Sneaze (as the cat dubs him), his household, and two of Mr. Sneaze’s friends. The Cat is a painting, haiku, and debate critic, but apparently a rather poor cat: he never catches mice or rats much to the chagrin of the lady of the house. To accompany his journey, the Cat has various neighborhood cats he communicates with. By the end of volume one and through volume two a neighbor woman, Mrs. Conk, visits Mr. Sneaze to gather information about one of his friends as the friend is interested in marrying Mrs. Conk’s daughter.
Natsume’s I Am A Cat is narrated in a straight forward manner from the position of a cat curled up on a cushion. It’s a collection of tales from daily life and the Cat provides meaningful insights into humanity. What I read of this collection I enjoyed and it very much has a feel of Sterne for all of you Shandy fans. While I did not finish the entire collection, the editor’s introduction stated that the collection ended seemingly when Natsume ran out of things to poke fun out and thus the cat dies. I very much want to return to this collection and it has also prodded me to finally read Virginia Woolf’s Flush – a novel narrated by a dog.