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Meticulous ode to love and fate

by Steve Finbow

It is rather disconcerting to read a novel that opens with the assertion that “I’ve already slid right on past the big five-oh — a milestone no one thinks is very pretty and few are eager to reach — to become a man of fifty-one,” particularly when this reviewer reaches that milestone this coming January.

THE SHADOW OF A BLUE CAT, by Naoyuki Ii, translated by Wayne P. Lammers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011, 272 pp., $17.95 (paper)

However, rather than a list of maudlin reminiscences, businessman Yuki Yajima’s tale is one of sharp memories, familial influences and inspiring literature. Central to his life, his uncle — who died at the age of 39 — an Anglophile and admirer of the Marquis de Sade, Norman Mailer and Kenzaburo Oe, holds a strange fascination for Yuki as he weaves personal incident into historical events.

Things are not quite what they seem. As he discusses his friends, tells of his college and career, and explains his concerns about his daughters — one 17, the other barely two-months old — Yuki mixes into his narrative contemplations on art and literature.

Longer sections on the meaning of love, group dynamics, and ethics add an intellectual heft to the everyday tale of a businessman and his seemingly normal life. Chances not taken, the politics of family life, and the necessity to be true to one’s principles inform the novel with an almost 19th-century feel — despite the presence of cell phones, emails and Amazon.com.

Meanwhile, in London during the 1970s, Yuki’s uncle finds himself embroiled in a weird erotic game with the mysterious Rieko. Here, the author deftly contrasts and compares the rules of familial behavior — father/husband, daughter/wife relationships — with the rituals of sadomasochism, asking, “Love? … What could you possibly mean?” For Yuki, love and life are all about control.

Personal, social and artistic responsibilities provide the moral background for a novel also interested in the intricacies of ethical bondage. Yuki’s strained conversations with his 17-year-old daughter, Ryo, show the tension between the generations and the attendant shifting of morals in Japanese society.

Yuki’s story about his business career pinpoints the hypocrisy in ruthlessly acquiring wealth and status while propounding a philosophy of impartiality and fairness. The vicissitudes of employment, the complexity of negotiations, and the power brokerage between colleagues mirror the changing tides of family interaction. The narrator is caught in a whirlpool of personal problems that threaten to suck him under. He almost drowns in his need to understand actions and events while falsely believing that he is a distant observer of chaos and catastrophe. This is evident in the scuffle he has outside the hospital room of an ex-colleague dying of stomach cancer.

Yuki fuses tales of the grim upbringing of his daughter’s boyfriend with comments on suicide and social dysfunction, realizing that, even though he disapproves of the young couple’s relationship, it reminds him of his first love during the summer he spent with his uncle in Yokokawa.

Yet, no matter how hard he tries to ignore and rationalize it, chaos is never far from Yuki’s life. His daughter is pregnant, his ex-colleague’s cancer worsens, and a client complains about a business foulup. Slowly, Yuki’s prejudices rise to the surface — not only is he having trouble communicating with his daughter’s generation, he is also unsure how to deal with what he thinks he knows and believes, stating, “I have a tendency to forget that institutions and laws are merely a thin outer shell covering the living bodies and myriad desires that lie underneath.”

Economics and eroticism merge in a novel sometimes reminiscent of Georges Bataille and sometimes of George Eliot. A tale of love, fate and responsibility, “The Shadow of a Blue Cat” combines philosophy and sociology in a tale of a man who would be a character in a tale by Yasutaka Tsutsui or the Marquis de Sade if it were not for his entrenched morality. Naoyuki Ii impresses with the wide scope of his societal view and the concurrent meticulous gaze into the life of a seemingly ordinary man.