I’m a sucker for a good series of books, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been keeping a close eye on one of Pushkin Press’s recent ventures. Over the past couple of years, they’ve been quietly putting out short works by contemporary Japanese writers (such as Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa), beautiful little books with covers that are all different yet instantly recognisible as a part of the collection. Today’s choice is the fifth so far, and if there are more untranslated novellas and stories out there of this quality, I’m sure the series will run for a good while yet 🙂
The Bear and the Paving Stone (translated by Geraint Howells, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a mini-collection of three works by Toshiyuki Horie. The title novella, winner of the Akutagawa Prize in 2000, is the main attraction, but the two shorter pieces included in the book complement the story nicely. There’s enough here to see the kind of writer Horie is, with an initial casual, easy tone gradually revealing concerns with more serious issues.
This is certainly true of the middle story, ‘The Sandman is Coming’, which on the surface is simply the description of a day at the beach. The narrator has returned to his home town and is walking on the sand with a woman and her young daughter, and the simple pleasures of the experience remind him of another day, when he spent time here with an old friend.
The poignancy of the piece comes from the reason for his visit. The woman is the younger sister of a close friend, one who has recently passed away after an illness, and this trip to the beach brings back bitter-sweet memories of the time they spent together. The story of how they all built a sandcastle together, the men (boys) yielding to the woman’s (girl’s) insistence on the right way to do it, only highlights the sense of lost time:
It got to be just like she said. Creating something that we knew would be destroyed was giving us an unexplainable sense of accomplishment that was the opposite of transience, and it was a spur for me as well as for her brother, who must already have been carrying the illness inside him.
‘The Sandman is Coming’, p.104 (Pushkin Press, 2018)
The last scene, with the writer finding himself transported back to his youth, is a fitting ending to a beautiful story.
By contrast, ‘In the Old Castle’, while also bringing old friends together, makes for a slightly less sentimental tale. Here, a photo reminds the writer of a trip to Normandy to visit an old friend, in the course of which the two are tempted to sneak over the fence to visit the ruins of an old castle. It’s a fun tale of old friends doing dumb things, but once again, Horie manges to slip something more subtle into the story, with the writer suddenly feeling claustrophobic behind the castle’s iron bars…
By itself, ‘The Old Castle’ would be a slight piece, but the effect of the story is heightened by the parallels with the main event, ‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’. Here, too, we are taken off to Normandy, where a Japanese translator of French literature spends a night with an old friend who has to leave the country in the morning. The two men stay up all night talking, and Horie’s story feels just like that, one of those nights of youth where the wine and conversation just keep going (it’s a *good* feeling).
There’s far more to ‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’ than a feel-good bromance, though. Gradually, the writer allows us to learn more about Yann, the narrator’s friend, and as can can happen in the early hours of the morning, the mood turns rather melancholy. Yann is a photographer, and as a parting gift, he offers his friend the choice of some of his left-over prints. However, one of the photos, showing a hut for smoking meat, has rather unfortunate connotations for the man who took it. You see, Yann is of Jewish heritage, and the picture allows painful family memories to rise to the surface.
The story is only about 80 pages long, but Horie manages to pack a lot in. The two friends go sightseeing, with a description of stunning views of Mont Saint-Michel, all the while trading stories of famous writers, most of whom were of Jewish heritage. The Holocaust is an unusual topic for a Japanese writer, but it’s the underlying theme of this work, with Yann comparing his restless nature with the story of the wandering Jew, claiming it’s better to keep moving than to hide away. Unfortunately, nothing can wipe the pain away completely:
Personal sadness. Was there any other kind? Wasn’t sadness something that everyone had to endure individually? Just like anger. The idea that you can share anger or sadness with others is nothing more, really, than a compelling illusion. We can only communicate the pain we feel on an individual level.
‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’, p.54
Unable to share his emotion with his family, Yann is compelled to keep moving and cope with his emotions alone.
I whipped through this novella in one sitting, but it’s far from a simple, entertaining piece. Horie’s light style belies the serious subject matter beneath the surface, and Howells does an excellent job of maintaining the tension between the airy style and heavy content. The story is full of bizarre conversations that change direction rapidly, quirky passages that are actually leading the reader in the direction of Yann’s confessions. This is especially true of the title, which comes from a La Fontaine fable. When the narrator reads the story, he learns that it means ‘a foolish friend who does more harm than good’, leading him to consider the effect his visit has had on Yann…
All in all, The Bear and the Paving Stone is another excellent piece of J-Lit, and a book many readers out there are sure to enjoy. Horie’s definitely a writer I’d like to see more from; unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there’s anything else out in English at present… Still, I’m looking forward to seeing the next book in this series, which should be Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had (despite the date given at the Pushkin webpage, commercial sites have this slated for a September release), and hoping that the collection will grow even more in the years to come 🙂