The First Book I Saw

I don’t really know if it was the first book I saw when Phillip and I walked into Kinokuniya Bookstore, inside Uwajimaya, the day of our initial streetcar joyride, but, I would discover later, it made the biggest impression on me.

There were typeface characters on the cover which I assumed were Japanese. The binding on the right-hand side made me assume that the inside was in Japanese, too. There was a lovely drawing of a curled-up cat on the cover. In English, it said, “I Am a Cat”. I didn’t know, at the time, what the book was. I assumed that it was either a novelty book or a blank journal.

Later, I did an internet search to remind myself what the name of the bookstore was. I found the Books Kinokuniya web site. There, I immediately recognized the book I’d seen in the store. I realized I had been wrong about the nature of the book. My internet search turned to Wikipedia, and then to The Seattle Public Library. Several copies were on the shelves at The Central Library. None of them had the cover I’d seen in the bookstore.

(Was it wrong of me to see a book in a bookstore and then check it out from the library?)

I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である), by Natsume Sōseki, was first published in 1905. Before that, it had been a series of magazine articles. My library copy was published in 1972, and was translated by Aiko Itō and Graeme Wilson.

The book begins: “I am a cat. As yet I have no name.” This nameless stray cat makes his way into the home of a “dyspeptic schoolteacher” named Mr. Sneaze. The cat (and, it seems, all cats) can understand human speech, as well as read his master’s diary and postcards. The book (actually three short stories tied into a book) is the cat’s observations of the schoolteacher and his friends as they try to outdo each other in their attempts to be intellectuals, especially when it comes to “Western” culture.

The book is described as “satire”. I saw where the satire was, but I really didn’t feel it. A lot of it, I’m sure, went over my head. I did find parts of the book amusing – but I kept feeling like it should have been funnier. I don’t know if this is because of a difference in era, a difference in culture, or if something got lost in the translation. (The translators’ forward does mention that even the title of the book is more clever in Japanese.)

There’s a bit about the cat getting its teeth stuck in a rice cake, and another bit about the schoolteacher’s friend breaking a tooth on a mushroom. I’m sure there’s more to it.

There really there are very funny parts in this book. I especially liked the conversation where the feline next door, Miss Tortoiseshell, tells the cat that her master was once someone of high standing – she was “the thirteenth Shogun’s widowed wife’s private-secretary’s younger sister’s husband’s mother’s nephew’s daughter.”

I also enjoyed the way the waiter handled it when the schoolteachers’ friends went into a Western style restaurant and ordered moat-bells. After figuring out what they were asking for, the waiter replied that the restaurant was out of moat-bells – perhaps they’d enjoy some meatballs instead. No, the friends insisted, they wanted moat-bells. The waiter later apologized and told them that the chef had explained that moat-bells are made with a rare ingredient that, unfortunately, isn’t available at the time. The friends left without having moat-bells. (See, I get it that the intellectuals wanted to be “Western” without really understanding Western culture.)

I didn’t dislike I Am a Cat. I just didn’t like it as much as it seems I was supposed to.

(Later, I discovered that my copy of I Am a Cat is the first of three volumes. The copy I’d seen in the bookstore, the one with the curled-up cat, was all three volumes in one. I’m still counting this as having read the first book I saw in a bookstore.)

  • A book translated to English
  • The first book you see in a bookstore
  • A satirical book

 

 

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