Tag Archives: Japanese contemporary fiction

The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie (transl. by Geraint Howells): Memory and friendship

Cover imageThis is the latest in Pushkin Press’ series showcasing contemporary Japanese writing, all brightly packaged and all elegantly slim. It’s the third I’ve read: I started with Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief, having enjoyed both Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, then ended last year’s reviews with Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich. Toshiyuki Horie’s The Bear and the Paving Stone is made up of three stories: one not quite long enough to be a novella, the other two much briefer.

The eponymous story sees a Japanese translator, educated in Paris and back from Tokyo on a visit, contact a friend he met as a student but has not seen for some time. Yann suggests they meet in Normandy where he now lives. It’s to be a brief visit as he has a photographic assignment in Ireland the next day. The two pick up where they left off five years ago, discussing all manner of things from the decimation of Yann’s family in the Second World War to the narrator’s project, translating a biography of the renowned lexicographer Lettré whose family originated in Normandy. Yann leaves the next day but the narrator stays, engaging in a little desultory research and coming to a surprising conclusion.

In ‘The Sandman is Coming’ a man visits his best friend’s family on the second anniversary of the friend’s death. Walking along the beach with his friend’s sister and her little girl, they recall her love of sand castles and our narrator is surprised by a vivid memory. A letter from a friend prompts a man to remember a night when he took fright in ‘In the Old Castle’. Locked in an old Normandy fortress by an officious groundsman he had a sudden understanding of freedom’s preciousness.

All three of these pieces are narrated in the first person making them both immediate and vividly impressionistic – from the titular story’s opening with its sea of bears stretching up into the mountains, to the lovely seashore exploration of the second. All three are closely linked by themes of memory and friendship. ‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’ ends on a particularly pleasing ‘madeleine’ moment with the narrator greedily biting into a tarte tatin only to be met with a piercing pain in a troublesome molar and remembering a similar moment with a carrot cake made for him by Yan. These are quietly enjoyable stories, elegantly polished. I hope Pushkin Press have a few more up their sleeves.

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (transl. Louise Heal Kawai): In the eye of the beholder

Mieko Kawakami is one of Haruki Murakami’s favourite young writers which made her novella hard to resist for me. Ms Ice Sandwich is the latest in a series published by Pushkin Press showcasing Japanese authors. I’ve only got around to reviewing one other– Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief – which leaves four more to explore.

Our unnamed narrator is just at the point where his classmates are beginning to giggle and gossip about sex, making him feel uncomfortable. He counts his way along the white line leading to the supermarket where he’s bought two egg sandwiches every day of the summer holidays from a taciturn young woman with enormous eyes and a taste for electric blue eye shadow. Those eyes fascinate him, triggering a memory of the dogs in the story his mother once read him to send him to sleep, or perhaps it was his father. His mother pays him little attention now, too caught up in her own preoccupations. Instead, he tells his ailing grandmother all about Ms Ice Sandwich, spending his evenings perfecting her portrait. When he hears his classmates ridiculing her he stops his daily purchases, puzzled by their description of her as a freak, until his friend Tutti persuades him to pay one more visit before he misses the chance of seeing Ms Ice Sandwich ever again.

Child narrators are extraordinarily tricky to pull off but Kawakami does it beautifully in this funny, touching story. Our endearingly thoughtful narrator spends a good deal of his time in a state of puzzlement at the behaviour of other people from which we readers can infer a great deal: his widowed mother has lost herself in tarot readings and astrology; motherless Tutti spends her evenings watching violent films with her dad. His befuddlement is neatly balanced by the mature, clear-eyed Tutti who ultimately saves the day. Kawakami’s brief novella ends poignantly but on a note of hope for both of them.

This is my last review for 2017 – although not my last post – and it’s a rather lovely one with which to round off the year. This year’s blogging has been much more about books from small presses than previous ones. I’ve long felt that independent publishers offer more interesting reading than the conglomerates, something which seems to be increasingly true, at least for me.

To those of you looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those of you in retail or catering who’ve been working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again.