A Cat, a Man, and Two Women by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

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What a treat this 1936 novella is! I can’t remember where I saw a recommendation for it, but when I realized the author had written The Makioka Sisters, I knew it would be worthwhile finding it. And Interlibrary Loan came to the rescue.

In only 99 pages the author creates a complicated household that focuses on a cat, Lily. There’s the slovenly Shozo, the Man of the title who loves Lily, his first wife Shinako, who was pushed out, Fukuko, his second wife, and his mother O-rin. Ultimately we come to understand all the humans despise each other and only Lily is lovable.

From her kitten days she had a charming, lively expression; her eyes and mouth, the movements of her nostrils, and her breathing all showed the shifts of her emotions, exactly like a human being. Her large, bright eyes in particular were always roving about; whether she was being affectionate, or mischievous, or acquisitive, there was always something lovable about her.

Shozo had gotten Lily before he was married and doted on her from the time she was a kitten. Her central role in the household became an issue for both of Shozo’s wives. To stir up trouble Shinako wrote to beg Fukuko for Lily, despite disliking the cat. Getting Lily out of the house suited Fukuko, so Lily was delivered to Shinako. It was after Lily was with Shinako that both Fukuko and Shozo concluded this was a plot to entice Shozo back to Shinako. ¬†Shinako’s reaction to Lily was a surprise to her:

Night after night, as she lay in bed with this furry little creature in her arms, Shinako would be amazed at how genuinely lovable a cat could be and wonder how she could have failed to realize it in the old days. The thought troubled her conscience and filled her with remorse. In her Ashiya days, she had conceived a dislike for the cat from the very beginning, which made her blind to Lily’s charms.

The book doesn’t come to an end point, rather you are left with the feeling that the dance among this ensemble would go on until the end of Lily’s life.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, Kodansha International, 1990, 164 pages (the book includes two other short stories), trans. Paul McCarthy.

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