Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat is many things. Told in three volumes via way of a pompous, humorous, intelligent cat without a name, I Am a Cat is a work of great satire, it is a work of true pathos, and it is a work of insightful literature. Written during 1904-1906, if there is one thing that the book reveals, it is that human nature does not change much over the generations. While the tale is told through a cat’s lens, the story is more about the humans than the cat, albeit there are passages that, for more or less, are believable within the universe Soseki has created. Given that one must accept that cats are more intelligent and knowledgeable than their human owners, the cat’s observations are spot on, and despite the era in which it was written, I Am a Cat is both fresh and Modern, as if it had been penned yesterday.
As the book opens, the unnamed feline begins with: “I am a cat. As yet I have no name. I’ve no idea where I was born.” The cat’s owner is a teacher who regards the cat with indifference, so much that he has not even bothered to name his pet. Likewise, the cat has no respect for his master, for he knows that the man is a fool. As example, consider this witty remark:
“As soon as he comes home from school, he shuts himself up in the study for the rest of the day; and he seldom emerges. The others in the house think that he is terribly hard-working. He himself pretends to be hard-working. But actually he works less hard than any of them think. Sometimes I tiptoe to his study for a peep and find him taking a snooze… ‘Teachers have it easy. If you are born a human, it’s best to become a teacher. For if it’s possible to sleep this much and still to be a teacher, why, even a cat could teach.”
Other moments illustrating the teacher’s stupidity are revealed by the fact that he will reject ideas that one can understand, and instead he prefers to dwell on obfuscated ideas he is incapable of understanding. But as the cat admits, the teacher is not alone in this fact. “Something unignorable lurks in whatever passes our understanding, and there is something inherently noble in that which we cannot measure,” he says.
While much of I Am a Cat is a criticism of academia and institutional thought, the cat also elaborates on how selfish human beings are, and for this, the cat is quite observant in what he discovers. For example, in one scene where he gets a sticky bun caught in his mouth, instead of the people around him helping to remove it, they merely laugh at the cat’s efforts to dispose of it. In another scene, when a beautiful next-door neighbor cat named Tortoiseshell dies suddenly, the cat overhears her owners blame him as the culprit, believing that he was the one to get her sick. This is a sad moment, for after he overhears of Tortoiseshell’s death, the cat is also reinforced with his own loneliness and the knowledge that were he to get sick, no one would go to such great lengths to protect him, much less miss him when he is gone.
I Am a Cat has moments of great humor, but also moments of resonating pathos. The cat admits he is envious of his neighbor cats, all of whom seem to receive better treatment than he, yet he also admits that despite his envy, that he is happy someone at least is caring for another member of his species. (At one point he overhears his neighbors refer to Tortoiseshell as a person rather than a cat, and this surprises him). I Am a Cat does not follow the typical concision pattern that so dominates Japanese literature. In fact, there are times when the book feels a bit verbose. Finishing at 470 pages, while there are no moments of weak writing, there is bit of overkill when it comes to repeatedly revealing the stupidity of human beings. And I say this not in defense of my own species, but maybe the old axiom about a lot less being more isn’t the solution, but rather, a little less would have been a lot more. In other words, the most engaging parts of I Am a Cat is when the cat is digressing his own insights and observations, be it about his own life or those humans around him. Yet whole sections consist of silly dialogue exchanges between his human owners that, while not without merit, did not need to be as long as they were.
Some readers have criticized the cat’s observations as being too “stereotypical” or “exaggerated” when thinking of academic elitist types, but this isn’t the problem, since the speaker we are dealing with is first and foremost a feline. Secondly, we are viewing everything through the cat’s perspective, so given the cat thinks little of humans as a species, of course we are not going to witness humans as they behave at their zenith, but rather how they behave in their self-serving ways.
Yet despite all this, the unnamed cat is entertaining, charming, and even lovable. One can’t blame him for viewing humans the way he does, especially since they think so little of him that they’ve not even bothered to name him. Translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, Tuttle Publishing offers an attractively bound edition. I Am a Cat is a criticism of conformity, academia, authority and humanity from a source outside ourselves. It has moments of great humor and moments of great insight. It is a well-composed work well worth the read, even if not perfectly composed.