The Bear and the Paving Stone, by Toshiyuki Horie (translated by Geraint Howells), is a collection of three stories by this award winning Japanese author. The titular tale takes up the bulk of the book and tells of a visit to France where the narrator meets an old friend from his university days. He has been working in Paris, translating a biography of lexicographer and philosopher Émile Littré. Upon finding himself with a little free time he contacts Yann, a freelance photographer, and arranges to meet.
The story describes a vivid dream, a train journey, and the days spent with Yann who invites the narrator to stay for a few days at the place he is renting. It is close to the town where the Littré family lived and also to Mont Saint-Michel, a Gothic monastery which the men travel to view.
As conversations with friends are wont to do there are many changes of direction. The pair reminisce on how they met and on events from their past. Yann is Jewish and his thoughts turn to the impact of the war on his family. The narrator is disturbed by the emotions evoked by some of the photographs Yann offers him as a souvenir.
When his friend must leave for a prearranged journey to Ireland the narrator stays on in Yann’s house, meeting his landlady and neighbour, Catherine, and her young son. He finds connections in the books he is reading, his dreams and one of the child’s favoured toys.
The second story in the collection, The Sandman is Coming, is set on a beach in Japan. The narrator is walking with an old friend’s younger sister and her child, remembering time spent together with her brother in this place. The man is visiting the seaside town to mark the second anniversary of his friend’s death. When younger he would visit each summer and the three would construct impressive sandcastles on the beach. Now the daughter is just s few years younger than her mother when they first met, although more vivid are the narrator’s memories of her when she was fifteen, her cleavage garnering several mentions.
The final story, In The Old Castle, returns to France. The narrator has been sent a photograph of himself taken many years ago when he visited a friend in Normandy to meet his new partner. Incidents during the journey irk him. He is then critical of his friend’s partner’s looks, focusing on how plump she is rather than the welcome she offers. They visit a partially restored castle, breaking in to look around. Initially excited by their daring, events soon take a darker turn.
The writing is calm and restrained, covering many topics and finding overlaps as each tale progresses. The imagery is strong as are the character portrayals although the style remains understated. The theme of old friendships portrays the reliance on shared memory rather than where they are in their lives today.
An enjoyable read with plenty to unpack and consider. Another fine addition to the publisher’s Japanese novella series.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.