#JanuaryInJapan: A Cat, a Man and Two Women

Tanizaki Junichirō: A Cat, a Man and Two Women, trans. Paul McCarthy, Daunt Books, 2017.

Tanizaki Junichirō (I’m sorry, I just can’t cope any more with the Western habit of reversing Japanese author names to suit our own standards – it is surname first in Japanese and in many other languages) was one of the leading Japanese authors of the 20th century and one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1960s (he died in 1965 and in the end it was Kawabata who was the first Japanese to win it). His obsessions with eroticism, fetishism and violence did not endear him hugely to me when I was a student, but I should add that not all of his books are like that.

He was a huge fan of Genji Monogatari and translated it into modern Japanese, so it’s no surprise that the clash between tradition and modernity, between East and West are recurring themes in his (often best) work. The Makioka Sisters has a Chekhovian or Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks feel to it (not just because of its title, which is actually Sasameyuki – or ‘thin/lightly falling snow’ in Japanese); it depicts the decline of a merchant family in Osaka, but also the end of an era. His collection of essays on Japanese art and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is also worth a read. But I can’t say I ever found his work amusing or charming… until now.

The 120 page novella A Cat, a Man and Two Women is one of Tanizaki’s lighter-hearted works and was written perhaps as a bit of a relief from the struggles of working for five years on the translation of Genji. A love triangle – or should that be a square? – it clearly shows that the author understood cats (and perhaps women too) very well. Shozo is a simple, unsophisticated man, somewhat easily manipulated (certainly when it suits him) by his mother or his second wife Fukuko. Meanwhile, his spurned first wife Shinako claims that she wants custody of their tortoiseshell cat Lily. But why does Shinako, who seemed to be jealous of Lily while they were all living in the same house, really want the cat? Is it because she knows that Shozo is so smitten with his pet that he will start visiting her once more?

Each of the humans in the story sets out to use Lily as a pawn, but in the end the cat proves to be the mistress of them all, drawing out both the best and the worst qualities of the people fighting over her. What is most touching about the story is the description of Lily as she ages – these are the passages where it becomes clear that Tanizaki must have been a great cat lover himself.

There were many signs of Lily’s rapid decline: one of them, for example, was her no longer being able to jump up with ease to Shozo’s height and snatch a bite to eat… each year the number of leaps grew fewer, and the height she reached lower. Recently, if she were shown a bit of food when she was hungry, she would first check to see if it was something she liked or not, and then jump; and even so, it had to be held no higher than a foot or so above her head. If it were any higher she would give up the idea of jumping and either climb up Shozo’s body or, when even that seemed too much for her, simply look up at him with those soulful eyes, her nose twitching hungrily… When Shinako got that sad look in her eyes, it didn’t bother Shozo very much; but for some reason, when it was Lily, he was strangely overcome with pity.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be reading this story about love for one’s pet during the week when the Pope expressed dismay that people prefer pets over having children (Shozo does not have any children with either his first or his second wife). Certainly, the closeness between Shozo and his cat is excessive at times – forcing his wife to cook something she hates for the sake of feeding it to the cat instead of eating it himself, or exchanging farts under the bedcovers. Yet I dare any animal lover not to be moved by that final scene, when he holds Lily on his lap and she purrs and allows herself to be stroked, but doesn’t seem to recognise him. Of course, you can also see it as the transience of life and marriage itself…

A slight story, but a beautifully observed and sensitively written study of human (and feline) nature. Tony Malone reviewed this when it was first reissued by Daunt, Karen aka Kaggsy reviewed it for #1936Club, while Annabel reviewed it for last year’s Japan challenge. This post will be linked to Meredith’s record-breaking 15th (fifteenth!) Japanese Literature Challenge.