Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Monday, January 13, 2014

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sosuki

Academic humor is generally not my forte. Don't know what academic humor is? Well, here's an example: "How many economics professors does it take to change a light bulb? None. If it really needed changing, market forces would have caused that to happen." While I do rather appreciate that joke's corniness, I can't say that I would like to read a whole book like that... he says knowingly...

However, academic humor does have its place in the world and there are books that are fairly well respected despite (or because of) the fact that they are bit eggheadish. Written between 1905 and 1906 as a series of middle-sized to long shorts before ultimately being collected in 1911, I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru) is what is considered to be a comic masterpiece about Japanese society during the Meiji era (1868-1912). 

The translated English version, done in 1972 by Graeme Wilson and Ito Aiko (not to be confused with the actress of the same name), has a bit of a high class British feel to it. With Graeme being British, I suppose that makes sense. The story just doesn't seem very Japanese to me, though. Of course, the Meiji era was a time of mixing with Western culture so perhaps my issue with the translation is more or less an issue with the time period itself. I feel I should also mention that Sosuki himself was a scholar of British literature. So the British feel the book has makes sense, I think.

It probably isn't an issue with translation, but it is odd imagining Japanese middle class people sounding like they could go out for "fish and chips" even though they are really eating rice balls. It's fairly easy to adapt to the way everyone talks. (But the names of the characters are still a bit annoying even if they are adequately translated. I can deal with Japanese characters speaking English perfectly having watched enough dubbed anime, but having English names too is where I kind of draw the line. At least keep some part of this story Japanese-sounding.)

What might not be so easy to adapt to is the pace. The first story was meant to be a standalone and at 21 pages it is the shortest story of the bunch. If you are wondering whether this might be your thing then the first story will be a fairly quick read. All the rest of the stories are about 50 pages or longer and they are all collectively soaked in dry academic humor and are just about some folks that go about their daily business. No chases or fights or anything even resembling action for the most part. With eleven stories in total tallying over 600 hundred pages in length, this can certainly be an off-putting read to a lot of people.  

This isn't a fast-paced book. A lot of literature isn't particularly fast-paced, but this one is one of those bedtime or work break books that I will read a bit from before I have to move on to other things. It's not a bad book and I certainly wouldn't begrudge anybody who chose to binge-read such a book, but "a little bit at a time" is the pace I with which I felt the most comfortable. 

I've been making a few notes as I go, highlighting a particularly witty phrase here or there, and some of the phrases are quite good. 

My favorite is this one: "For money, believe you me, is a hard mistress and none of her lovers are let off lightly. As a matter of fact, I've just been visiting a businessman and, according to him, the only way to succeed is to practice the 'triangled technique': try to escape your obligations, annihilate your kindly feelings, and geld yourself of the sense of shame. Try-an-geld. You get it? Jolly clever, don't you think?"

That particular quote is made somewhere around page 180 and is told in sort of a joking manner by one of the snob characters. It might have been Waverhouse or maybe Coldmoon. I can't remember because I didn't highlight who said it and I don't feel like going back and figuring it out. At any rate that quote is way too complicated to be even remotely funny, but it apparently is an excellent translation of a complicated Japanese pun. And the quote is designed to be complicated and drawn out because that's just the sort of things that academic snobs do and that's where the satire comes in. The humor is often purposefully forced and clunky to make the snobs sound stupid.

Our narrator through these stories is a cat without a name. He belongs, more or less, to Mr. and Mrs. Sneaze and gets to observe Mr. Sneaze and his exchanges with the famous embellisher of facts Mr. Waverhouse and the ardent doctorate pursuer Mr. Coldmoon. He writes about these exchanges with his own feline insights although the further into the book the less the narrator seems feline. Even the cat is smart enough to make note of that fact by saying that all of his frequent meetings with humans make him feel like he has practically become one. 

Overall, these stories do blend together to tell a bit of a tale and do chronologically follow the order in which they are placed, but they can stand alone, too. From what I can tell, anyway. I am about halfway finished with this book because I am reading other things and also because I don't really feel in a rush to finish this book, but the introduction piece clued me in a great deal as to just what the contents of this book is like. 

If you think you'd like this kind of book then I would recommend it because it is a good and competent read. I prefer books that feel less dry and have a bit of an atmosphere, though. That's why I found No Longer Human so fascinating and riveting. 

Still, I don't doubt I will read another title from this guy in the future. 

P.S. - My Kindle version of this story was rife with some formatting issues. While not an indictment of the story it certainly is an annoyance and an indictment of the Kindle version. 

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