Tag Archives: japanese fiction

The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Horie Toshiyuki

A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

In Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, middle-aged Tsuneo Asai is a senior civil servant, dedicated to his job, a man who loves his second wife, the much younger but sickly Eiko. We don’t know what happened to Asai’s first wife who died early in the marriage, and it would seem that Asai is fated to be a widower when, on  a business trip, he receives the news that Eiko has died suddenly of a heart attack.

Asai knew that Eiko, his wife for seven years, had heart problems; she’d had a heart attack two years earlier, and that’s the reason Eiko gave her husband for no longer having sex. She was afraid that sex would bring on an early death, and so Eiko filled her days with a series of hobbies: studying traditional Japanese ballads, playing the shamisen, Japanese style painting–all abandoned until she found Haiku–an “infatuation” which “stuck.” She joined a haiku group, and Asai, happy that Eiko found something to occupy her time, remained largely disinterested about how his wife spent her days.

After the funeral, Asai asks a few questions about Eiko’s death. She collapsed and died in a “cosmetics boutique” in a neighbourhood peppered with “couple’s hotels.” Some things about the story of Eiko’s death don’t add up. Asai begins to wonder what his wife was doing in this area, and the questions, which remain unanswered, fester in his head.

a quiet place

There are details of Japanese customs here–the  matchmaker’s job in bringing Asai and Eiko together, condolence money after the death of a loved one. And since this is Japanese fiction, this is a tale that takes its time, unwinding in unexpected ways as we learn about Asai’s life–now ruined by the unanswered questions about Eiko.

While A Quiet Place is a crime novel, it’s also deeply psychological. The phrase ‘a quiet place’ refers to a section of the book, but it’s also symbolic of Asai’s state of mind. He is an ambitious man–not in the traditional sense of wheeling and dealing his way to the top, but he’s a coat-hanger operative. He prides himself on being a good judge of character and is “adept at sniffing out whether someone was likely to rise in the ranks or not.” Occasionally, just occasionally, he’s “deliberately malicious.” Asai makes sure that he makes himself indispensable, even arranging for geishas for those he thinks will rise in the hopes that one day, all his hard work will be remembered and “justly rewarded” by those he’s served on their way up the ladder. Asai isn’t a bad person; he’s responsible, faithful to his wife and hardworking, but his job is of paramount importance to him, and his one great character flaw is his complete indifference to his wife as a sentient being. He “valued money above everything,” and right below his attitude to money, in the hierarchy of his characteristics, is Asai’s dread of scandal and losing his respectability.

And then there are the images of Eiko who’s dead when the novel opens, and yet the impressions of this rather sad woman remain:

It wasn’t uncommon for her to spend two or three days at a time lying on the sofa, claiming to be too tired to do any housework. Asai never complained. He’d go out shopping and do all the cooking and cleaning himself.

[…]

She had two completely different sides. Asai often wondered if she was bored staying at home with him. She certainly came to life whenever she went out anywhere.

Asai is surprised after Eiko’s death to learn from one of the women in Eiko’s haiku circle that his deceased wife wrote over 150 haiku:

“It was a case of quantity over quality, I imagine,” he said.

Imagine how shocked Asai is to learn that his wife actually had talent, and according to the haiku teacher Eiko’s death has cut short the writing life of a truly gifted woman. Oh the irony–Eiko becomes more interesting and valuable to Asai in death than she ever was in life. And then it makes sense why we know nothing about Asai’s first wife. She was a blank, just like Eiko would have been a blank if not for the clues left behind in the haiku.

I’ve read only a few Japanese novels, and now I’m determined to read more. Yes, probably crime novels, but A Quiet Place is much more than a crime novel, it’s a character study, so don’t let that genre tag put anyone off. This is a slow-burn novel about how, in spite of the greatest planning and self-discipline, a middle aged man’s life goes off the rails.

Suggestions for further books welcomed.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

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Filed under Fiction, Matsumoto Seicho