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Book Review: A Cat, a Man, and Two Women by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

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A Cat, a Man and Two Women is a collection of three tales — containing one that is very good and two others that are pretty good. The title story, “A Cat, a Man, and Two Women,” is a 100-page novella and is the best in the book, offering just the right amount of humor and tenderness involving a cat that affects the lives of those around it. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who loves his cat, Lily. He loves her so much that the woman in his life is jealous of the affection he bestows upon her. The tale opens with Shozo sharing his mackerel with Lily, by getting her to repeatedly leap for the bait. His wife, Fukuko, has always had somewhat a disdain for the cat, and thus she resents the close bond her husband shares with the animal.

Eventually, Fukuko requests that the cat go and live with Shozo’s ex-wife, Shinako. And while Shozo is a submissive man, he offers no opposition, though he begs his wife to allow Lily to remain with them for one more week. His wife agrees, and Shozo wonders how his wife can be jealous of a cat. One might be put to mind the other well-known Japanese novel involving a cat, by Soseki Natsume, called I am a Cat. Unlike Soseki’s novel, which portrays the humans as selfish, lazy individuals, (and is told from the point of view of the cat) Tanizaki’s portrayal of humans is a bit more empathetic in that, Lily is fortunate to have found people who do care for her, even if the reasons are self-motivated. Shozo’s ex-wife, for example, agrees to take the cat, despite her dislike for the animal. Yet, as the narrative progresses, she becomes attached to it. In a sense, it is as though Lily is the one connecting the people around her.

Eventually when Shozo visits the cat, he notices how much she has aged in the time she’s been away. But he also notices that Shinako has been caring for the cat, causing him to wonder: “How on earth had she come to take such good care of a cat she’d once detested?” And here is where readers are given the psychological insight behind the relationships:

“Shozo realized now that his own character was to blame for driving his ex-wife out, and for causing this cat too a great deal of pain. And now, this very morning, he hadn’t even been able to enter his own house and so had drifted over here. As he listened to the sound of Lily’s purring, and was half choked by the smell of her litter-box, he was stirred by strong emotions. Yes, it was true—Shinako and Lily were both to be pitied. But wasn’t he to be pitied even more? He, who had not home to call his own?”

The other two stories in the collection are both solid tales, but they don’t hold the power of the novella. “The Little Kingdom” is the better of the two, and it involves a teacher trying to maintain discipline in his classroom, while also battling his own set of personal problems. He learns that perhaps the best way of mastering the class is by becoming more like them. The tale reminded me of a lesser version of Soseki’s Botchan, albeit Soseki’s novel contained more humor.

The final tale, “Professor Rado,” is the least interesting in the collection, as it involves an ever so familiar theme amid Tanizaki’s work, and that is sexual perversions and a man with a foot fetish. It’s the least memorable tale because Tanizaki has explored this theme better in other works. It is also more predictable. In fact, in my recent review of Diary of a Mad, Old Man, I joked about losing count of the number of Tanizaki characters with foot fetishes. Here’s another I can add to that list.

About Jessica Schneider