Man-Eating Cats by Haruki Murakami, 1999
The magic trick:
Making obvious connections, contradicting them, and presenting new ones
I really like this story. It’s not the best Murakami story of all time or anything. But it’s really good. I’m a few days away from reading it and its powers seem to only grow, with different ideas and connections developing in my mind. Definitely a sign of a powerful story.
The interesting thing is that the initial connection, the metaphor of the cats, struck me as obvious and not all that fascinating. The narrator remembers a day in his childhood when his pet cat seemed to simply vanish up a tree. OK, yes, just like this narrator might appear to his son. The narrator’s girlfriend verbalizes this comparison in the story a couple of pages later and the whole thing feels fairly simple.
I should’ve known better.
With Murakami, nothing is simple. Especially not the parts that seem simple.
Quickly, my assumptions of the cat metaphor become subverted. Maybe the narrator isn’t the cat at all. He’s still the boy. Maybe his girlfriend is the cat. Maybe his family is. I’m not sure. The thing that is so cool is the way Murakami subverts his metaphor but keeps it in place at the same time. It’s still fair to connect the narrator’s present life to the memory of the disappearing cat. It’s also fair to connect it with the newspaper story about man-eating cats. No connection is obvious, but no connection is disqualified either. It’s all in play. And that’s quite a trick on Murakami’s part.
“I was in second, maybe third grade. We lived in a company house that had a big garden. There was this ancient pine tree in the garden, so tall you could barely see the top of it. One day, I was sitting on the back porch reading a book, while our tortoiseshell car was playing in the garden. The cat was leaping about by itself, the way cats do sometimes. It was all worked up something, completely oblivious of the fact that I was watching it. The longer I watched, the more frightened I became. The cat seemed possessed, jumping around, its fur standing on end. It was as if it was something that I. couldn’t. Finally, it started racing around and around the pine tree, just like the tiger in ‘Little Black Sambo.’ Then it screeched to an abrupt halt and scrambled up the tree to the highest branches. I could just make out its little face way up in the topmost branches. The cat was still excited and tense. It was hiding in the branches, staring out at something. I called its name, but it acted like it didn’t hear me.”
“What was the cat’s name?” Izumi asked.
“I forget,” I told her. “Gradually, evening came on, and it grew darker. I was worried and waited for a long time for the cat to climb down. Finally, it got pitch dark And we never saw the cat again.”
“That’s not so unusual,” Izumi said. “Cats often disappear like that. Especially when they’re in heat. They get overexcited and then can’t remember how to get home. The cat must have come down from the pine tree and gone off somewhere when you weren’t watching.”
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