A Cat, a Man, &  Two Women
Junichiro Tanizaki
Paul McCarthy, Translator

(New Directions)
This is a book for cat-heads. If you like the way they walk, play, ignore you, eat, clean themselves, scratch, purr, jump, use the box, lap the milk, huddle against you, play you like a violin --- this is your baby. It's all cat-talk from the get-go. Stately, plump Shozo Iahin seems to play with Lily the cat more than he plays with his new wife, Fukuko.

She buys him horse mackerel at the fish market and prepares it for him and then he dandles it over Lily's head, getting her up on her two feet to dance around trying to catch it, and then, after she eats her fill, she comes to lick his face, to clean the bits of fish off his lips and cheeks and chin. Fukuko couldn't be more bored, and, at this point, the reader is wondering if we should be spending so much time reading about a guy who wallows in cat heaven.

But what keep us going is not the licking and playing and purring but the fact that author Junichiro Tanizaki is no small potatoes. In 1935 he came up with one of the first modern translations of The Tale of Genji, which was then rendered into English by Arthur Waley. As Ian Buruma pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, The Tale of Genji, is

    an eleventh-century Japanese masterpiece often called the world's first novel, is about the art of seduction. Not that any sexual act is ever mentioned; very little in Murasaki Shikibu's prose is plainly stated. Things are suggested, alluded to, often nebulously. What counts in the seduction scenes is the art, the poetry. Quite literally so: the proper approach to a desired lady was through poems, written on scented paper of the finest quality, delivered by an elegantly dressed go-between of appropriate social rank. More poems would be exchanged as soon as the approach bore fruit. A "morning after" poem was an essential part of etiquette.

So, even though A Cat, a Man, & Two Women may seem a little cat-heavy at the inception, more than you want to know about a mere puss and how she uses people, there may be some subtleness here that we might want to study. At the very worse, we will learn how a good writer can give turn the portrait of a mere kitty into an epiphany.

A Cat, a Man, & Two Women is about the art of seduction by means of a furry little mammal. Wife #1, Shinako, has decided that she wants her old squeeze Shozo to come back home. She is sure that Fukuko --- spouse #2 --- is going to blow it. And she may be right.

One day, Shozo, showing himself to be a bit of a prig, looks in the back of Fukuko's closet and what does he find? He pulls his mother into the bedroom, and says "Take a look at this!" Shozo opens the closet door.

    "What do you think that is?"

    "That?" . . .

    "Its all Fukuko's dirty laundry. She shoves her things in there, one on top of the other. She never does any washing, so the dirty things just pile up there, and now you can't even open the drawers in that closet."

So by begging, pleading, demanding, and trickery, wife #1 is hell-bent on getting Shozo back by return express, even though she pretends only to be asking for the old cat to be returned to her. Before, she was not much taken with Lily, but the cat is the worm-hole leading into her former husband's heart, a cat that knows --- like all good cats must --- how to seduce humans by every means possible.

Shinako worms Lily out of Shozo, and suddenly cat and new mistress become fast friends.

    As Shinako sat there amazed, Lily looked up at her with a gaze full of sadness and, pressing herself against her breast, pushed with her forehead at the collar of the woman's flannel nightgown. Shinako found herself rubbing her cheek against Lily's head; and before long the cat started licking at her chin, her ears, the tip of her nose, around her mouth --- everywhere. Shinako had heard people say that when a cat was alone with its owner, it would sometimes kiss and rub its face against that person, showing its love in much the same way as humans do.

There is a helluva lot of kitty love going on in this 100 page novelette, making us wonder about where Tanizaki's head was at. When he wasn't translating The Tale of Genji, he was known to write stories about different fetishes. In fact, one of the two tales hooked here onto the Lily story tells of a university professor who has a thing about women's feet, and the last scene has Professor Rado delightedly fitting a pair of artificial toes on the foot of an actress that he is smitten by:

    "See, It looks just like one of your own toes. What do you think? . . . Does it fit all right? It doesn't hurt, does it?" The professor spoke in a sweet, coaxing voice as he fitted the object onto Mayumi's foot.
What we learn in this story is not only how an animal can own us, yank our chains . . . but, too, by playing itself off against the passion that one has for it, it can find itself rich in pure manipulation. You and I have seen for ourselves how warring husbands and wives may turn their children into pawns in a intrafamilial civil war, so Tanizaki has landed on similar territory here --- stuffing a mere cat in the moil, where all concerned are sucked into a passion-play.

At the very end of the story, we are left with a picture of the phlegmatic Shozo hiding in the bushes just outside Shinakos' apartment, food hidden in the pocket of his coat, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cat, finally sneaking into her building to see his grimalkin. (Remember, this is a man who --- around either Shinako or Fukuko --- has been passive to the point of sloth and torpidity in the love/affection department.)

    Sadness welled up inside him, and he cried out "Lily!" in a strangled voice. The cat, seeming to notice his presence at last, opened two dull, listless eyes and cast an extremely unfriendly glance in Shozo's direction. Apart from that, there was no expression of emotion. Folding her forepaws still more deeply under her, and twitching the skin on her back and at the base of her ears as she were cold, she closed her eyes again with a look that expressed the need for sleep, and sleep alone.
--- Richard Saturday
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH