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I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

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