This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
As with the synopsis above, I apologize in advance for the length of this critique. However, there is a lot to say! Before I started reading I Am a Cat, I was afraid that I would not be able to relate to it. After all, commentary and parody of the social upheaval in Meiji era Japan is not something that strikes me as approachable. It was immediately clear, though, that I had nothing to worry about. The cat himself was endearing and believable. Furthermore, the observations he made and the comments in general about humanity were not limited to Meiji era Japan, but rather things we could all relate to. For example, one of the first major things he mocks in his master, is the way Sneaze will move from project to project, believing he can master them all. This is, unfortunately, one of my own weaknesses.
The attitude of the cat, in general, was something I loved about this book. Throughout he had just enough sarcasm and wit to make every conversation and observation a joy to read. If you still do not believe that this is the kind of book you would enjoy, allow me to present a quote from our nameless cat, that I think summarizes the book quite well:
"At ordinary times, most human beings are wearisomely ordinary; depressingly banal in appearance and deadly boring in their conversation. However, at certain moments, by some peculiar, almost supernatural, process their normal triviality can be transformed into something so weird and wonderful that no feline scholar of their species can afford to miss any occasion when that transformation seems likely to take place" (382).
I wish I were more well versed in the terminology surrounding different styles of humor, because I feel like many of them were exemplified in I Am a Cat. Instead, I will just admit my ignorance of the subject and state that the book made me laugh and give a favorite example. In this passage, Beauchamp is telling Sneaze about a play a group he was in performed that was written by Chikamatsu (No, I do not know who Chikamatsu is either, but I still found this hilarious, and I think it can serve as a good example of the type of comedy you should expect from I Am a Cat):
"'Chikamatsu? You mean the Chikamatsu who wrote jorui plays?' There are not two Chikamatsus. When one says Chikamatsu, one does indeed mean Chikamatsu the playwright and could mean nobody else. I thought my master really stupid to ask so fool a question. However, oblivious to my natural reactions, he gently stroked my head. I calmly let him go on stroking me, justifying my compliance with the reflection that so small a weakness is permissible when there are those in the world who admit to thinking themselves under loving observation by persons who merely happen to be cross-eyed" (42).
In addition to the cat himself, the human characters were all wildly entertaining, especially Waverhouse. At first I did not know what to make of this aesthete who cannot be shut up. However, once I realized he was not to be taken seriously, he brought a wonderful amount of absurdity to every situation. In fact, chapters in which he was not involved were substantially more dull. This is not to say that the others were not interesting, simply that no one can live up to a man who will state: "I know almost everything about almost everything. Perhaps the only thing I don't know all about is the real extent of my own foolishness. But even on that, I can make a pretty good guess" (213).
I find it fortuitous that I have read I Am a Cat so soon after Firmin. In many ways, these two books complement each other. On the one hand we have Firmin, a rat whose sole existence is spent seeking out literature and considering the meaning of being a rat who longs to be human. On the other hand we have our nameless cat who, though we do not ever catch him reading, is immensely well read by nature. Our cat, however, spends his time observing, reflecting on, and mocking humanity. And yet, in spite of all the negative things he says, often carries himself as a human and speaks of humans as being superior to cats. Clearly he wishes to be human as much as Firmin, even if he is not willing to say it out rightly. Also, there may be no direct connection or inspiration of Firmin by I Am a Cat, but I would not be surprised to read that there was.
Finally, allow me to talk about the end of the book. When Sneaze and his friends come together to discuss the future, they go on at length about how much suicide will become a problem in the future, to the point where everyone will do it, and criminals will punished by being sentenced to life. This is interesting because Japan currently has the highest suicide rate of any industrial country, and it has only become such a problem since the early 1990s. Reading this section with this in mind, Waverhouse's prediction becomes eerie in its accuracy. The group was also disturbingly accurate in its prediction that the sanctity of marriage would decline (at least in respect to our own culture - I am not familiar the modern thoughts on marriage in Japan). Throughout this final chapter I was in awe of the accuracy of their predictions, especially since it seems clear that we are meant to see them as a gross exaggeration.
The death of the nameless cat was extremely hard for me to bear. Harder, in fact, than I thought it would be considering, in the introduction, the translator mentioned he died at the end. Still, the image of this pitiful, helpless creature scrabbling against the inside of the jug was quite depressing. I think the other reason it was so hard to bear (and this speaks to the skill of Natsume as a writer) was the cat was so real in my mind. Yes, he was a cat, but he was so complicated, such a realized character that I could not help but think it a waste for him to have died. Throughout the book I felt as though he were next to me, relating these stories and laughing along with me at the antics of his foolish human friends. Yet, in the end he dies alone, and no matter how much I long to lift him out of that jug, I am as helpless to offer aid as he is to save himself. Now, I would choose the final lines of the book as my favorite quote, but since it gives away so much of the end and would steal the impact for anyone who has not read it, I will include it here: "I am dying, Egypt, dying. Through death I'm drifting slowly into peace. Only by dying can this divine quiescence be attained. May one rest in peace! I am thankful, I am thankful. Thankful, thankful, thankful" (470).
If it is not clear from the 2400+ words I have written about I Am a Cat, I would strongly recommend this book. It does drag at times, due to its lack of overarching narrative (something I think we put too much emphasis on when it comes to most books), but its humor, style, and characters make it an excellent read. I also greatly enjoyed how this book helped me to realize that, while we often think of ourselves as being so much more advanced (with all the consequences of that advancement) than our predecessors we are, in reality, just the last in a long line of megalomaniacs who think that they are the first to encounter the difficulties of life. Plus, though I read it all at once, the short story structure does allow one to read it in pieces, over time. Thus, while I may not ever read it again from beginning to end I imagine I will periodically pick it up just for the sake of spending some time again with my friend, the nameless cat.
Plus, how can I not recommend a book that teaches me the word flibbertigibbet.
"At ordinary times, most human beings are wearisomely ordinary; depressingly banal in appearance and deadly boring in their conversation. However, at certain moments, by some peculiar, almost supernatural, process their normal triviality can be transformed into something so weird and wonderful that no feline scholar of their species can afford to miss any occasion when that transformation seems likely to take place."Natsume Soseki in I Am a Cat
Natsume Soseki the First Line of I Am a Cat
Natsume Soseki the Last Line of in I Am a Cat