I Am A Cat is an early 20th century novel written by Natsume Soseki, one of the greatest of the Japanese modernists. The novel is a set of three volumes originally composed in Japanese, told from the perspective of a household cat listening in on the people around him. I had originally started the novel reading in both Japanese and English side-by-side, but I found the language in Japanese too difficult. Soseki in fact uses a very feline style, resulting in a lot of colloquial usage and language play that I found too difficult as an Intermediate reader. Nonetheless, I found what I was reading in English quite insightful, and so despite giving up the original, I continued reading the translation.
Soseki, in giving his cat a talent for eavesdropping, has equally given voice to a lot of qualities of human behavior that is peculiar but we rarely think so. Whether it be our sleeping patterns, our particular ways of greeting each other, and the way we perceive our friends versus strangers, the Cat notices everything, and says what is on his mind. This allows Soseki to play animal in order to put his observations on human nature onto the page, and while the structure isn’t necessarily subtle, it allows for some illuminating sentences. Soseki also spends a lot of time making the cat observe humans, and they go on and on in conversation, about differences in art and culture.
What I found most interesting were the Soseki’s observations on the West vs East. I found myself agreeing that one of the major differences between Western and Eastern culture is the Western world’s desire to adapt the world around it to a human vision, while the Eastern world fundamentally tries to make peace with the place of the human in a much grander system. The Cat’s owner gives the example of a child and a father bickering. He believes that in the Western world, the child and the father would seek counseling in order to ameliorate their differences, whereas in the Japanese way of thinking, the child and father would simply accept that they are at odds, and find a means to bring peace into their house by avoiding too much contact with each other.
I wondered deeply about this conversation. I considered that in the Indian context, it would be easy to see both styles, and perhaps a style of neither (perhaps the child would do whatever the father wanted and have his own world vision destroyed). From that context, it is easy to argue the Indian world vision would most likely be deemed different from both the Far East and the West, but in certain ways, it is Indian culture which fully embraces what Soseki calls for, though with modernization that itself is changing. Certainly such a proposition can no longer belong to modern Japan. If there is a part of the world that works harder to push the human away from the realm of the self and more into the realm of the artificial, it would be the Far East, albeit with the pretext of harmony, to make the human life as convenient as possible because it keeps life peaceful, perhaps under the belief that it is only the machine that is fully able to mediate between the human and the non-human world.
The point is that even a handful of sentences between narrators summoned entire whirlpools of reflection on my end, and there were plenty of times in I Am A Cat where something similar happened. Soseki’s novel could have been published as a journal of musings and little would have been changed. There is very little plot progression or sensation that the structure serves much other than to remove humanity from human concerns. Still, I am grateful that in any form, that a novel of such insight exists.