You may have read the same newspaper article that I did, a few years ago, about the elderly woman in Athens who was eaten by her cats. Sounds like an urban legend. The old lady died, leaving three cats trapped in her apartment with no food. The woman must have had few friends or relatives to check up on her, even in family-friendly Athens, so by the time she was discovered, her beloved cats, probably the only regular company that she had, were devouring her corpse.
It sounds like a great creative writing exercise: Let’s see how one of the masters of contemporary literature handles it.
You’re first at sea in Murakami’s story. The first person narrator has read the cat story to Izumi. You’re not sure who she is or what the relationship is between them. The story was read in an English language paper from Athens. The bitter coffee that the storyteller is drinking is a cultural tag to the Aegean world….it’s probably turkish coffee. There’s also a conditional sentence: “When I lived in Japan I used to read picture books to my son.” It sounds like he’s not with his family now. Izumi can’t be his wife. He’s phrasing things as if he is away from his family.
There are also some bees who are feeding off dropped jelly on an outdoor table and a parable from Catholic school about if you were marooned on a island with a cat and had limited supplies that you shouldn’t share the food but let the cat starve.
This is echo chamber writing. Murakami is setting up a thematic resonance. Your mind is being primed by these little anecdotes.You are being set up for what happens later. Writers think with a special associative logic. They pull images together as if they were assembling a site on Pinterest. You can think of a short story as a page on Pinterest where items are pulled together from which the reader constructs a surprising gestalt.
Izumi and the narrator are marital refugees from Japan. They were both in happy marriages that sound as comfortable as a blue wool blanket. The narrator was in a stable job that is described so generically that it sounds like mine. He has seniority and can pick his assignments and say what he wants. He likes his coworkers and boss well enough. His salary was adequate and he could have stayed there, designing book and magazine layouts, for years.
Both the narrator and Izumi, who is ten years younger, are in the comfort zone of Japanese society as if all of Japan were a company town. They meet as part of a team project. Murakami describes the growing relationship the same way he describes the narrator’s job. It’s not an intense friendship but they like each others’ company. They sleep together as an extension of their empathic conversations. Their marriages blow up.
Once you start discarding the components of your life you find there’s little that you can’t discard. Izumi and her lover discard their jobs (that was easier than they thought) and their families (surprisingly easy) and they discard Japan. They live on a small Greek island off the coast of Turkey. The narrator has no interest in Greece but Izumi always wanted to go. They are living in a small house out in the country, living off their pooled savings.
That “discard” is the break in reality that tips the story into fantasy. It helps Murakami develop his flair for the macabre that Japanese society has a reputation for conformity. I think it’s part of the attitude of Murakami’s fiction that when convention breaks down, we are in a danger zone where reality itself can break down…as if reality and the enforcement of convention meant the same thing. We all feel nervous when we leave the comfort zones of our lives. Murakami is playing on that fear.
On the plane trip to Greece our narrator has a severe anxiety attack. This attack has physical symptoms but it’s main component is that he loses his self of self. He fears if he scratched himself, pieces would fall off, or if he shook, he would be shattered to dust.
Murakami has set up his narrator’s situation so that Izumi is the strongest link to his sense of himself. And the story is always in first person, so much so that I can’t give you the name of who is speaking. In the middle of the night, this nameless narrator who you are encouraged to identify with, wakes up alone in bed. Azumi has vanished.
Murakami’s stories are populated by vanishings as well as cats. Have you had dreams where you are talking to someone or need someone to find your way, only to find that they have vanished? It’s a dreamscape way of thinking being superimposed on literature.
Deep in the night, he hears music playing from a nearby mountain village. Thinking Izumi might be there, he takes the trail upward to the village. But the music fades when he’s halfway there and he’s left in the silent dark. That image got to me: music in the dark on a mountaintop which vanishes as you approach. Murakami had set up the mountain village earlier in the story in a deliberately mundane way. The couple have gone to this nearby village in daylight to dine and shop. So it’s familiar but now unfamiliar…which is the best way to spook anyone.
Writers can project our incoherent fears. In Murakami they become cats. His characters risk devouring themselves and threaten to eat up the story that you are reading. “Man-Eating Cats” is in Murakami’s award-winning story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman from Vintage…from which so many good things come.