The title story, Kuma no shikiishi 熊の敷石, is the winner: a novella whose title could translate as “The Bear’s Paving-Stone.” I’d be tempted to translate it as “Bear Paving-Stone,” for the pun, but there’s no pun in the original. Rather, it’s a direct translation of a French proverbial expression, “le pavé de l’ours,” which comes from the story in La Fontaine’s Fables about “The Bear and the Gardener.” A lonely gardener made friends with a lonely bear, and things were going well for a while, each doing the other favors, until the bear took it upon himself to chase away all the flies. One landed on the sleeping gardener’s nose, and no amount of shooing would drive it off. So the bear picked up a paving-stone from the garden and chucked it at the fly. And killed the gardener. Because bears aren’t too smart. The moral being: be careful about your friends.
The effect of the story, for the Japanese reader (or any non-French reader, really, this one included), depends on not knowing that proverb, though. The story begins with a dream of the narrator’s about rambling in a forest, then realizing that the path he’s on is actually the backs of bears, all running toward a hill in the forest. I.e., the bears themselves are (in the dream) paving-stones. The dream isn’t commented on or explained, and only at the end do we have the narrator coming across the French idiom and learning its meaning and reflecting on how it fits his life…
The story is mostly flashback. The present-moment frame is the morning after the dream. The narrator wakes up in a house in Normandy. He’s a guy in his 30s from Tokyo who makes a living translating from French to Japanese. He was on a research trip to Paris, buying books and making notes on what might translate well before he approaches publishers, when he had a free couple of days and decided to call up an old friend, Jan. Jan is about to leave the country for Ireland, but he invites the narrator out to Normandy to visit him for the afternoon, and the narrator ends up spending the night, and staying on a couple of days to work alone in the empty house after Jan leaves.
The bulk of the story has us following the narrator as he rides the train from Paris, meets Jan, and drives around the vicinity of Avranches. Much of it is their conversation. Jan is a photographer, and they drive picturesque granite quarries, the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, and various villages and cafés and country lanes. Their talk runs to books – Jan brings up Jorge Semprún, and it’s at this point that the narrator realizes that Jan’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. They also talk about Émile Littré and his Dictionary; the book the narrator is scoping out for possible translation is a biography of him, and he’s amazed at the coincidence that he’s now in Avranches, because that’s where Littré’s family was from.
The story ends with the narrator in Jan’s house after Jan’s departure. He finishes his work on Littré, and in the process runs across the idiom that gives the story its title. He finds a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables and looks it up, and takes from it the moral about being careful about one’s friends. And as he’s eating lunch with Jan’s landlady before she drives him to the train station, he wonders if perhaps he wasn’t a bear to Jan’s gardener – doing him harm by forcing him to talk about things too personal or difficult for him, such as his grandmother’s experiences in the Holocaust.
I loved this story, and I loved it more the farther I got into it. It’s unprepossessing. The style is light but subtle – just off balance enough to force you to pay attention. And the characters and their relationships are realized with the same graceful touch. It helps that the situation and the setting are unfamiliar, so that we have to trust the narrator but we don’t know how much we can. Horie himself is an accomplished French translator, so when he has his narrator getting together with an old friend like this out of the blue, staying at his house with no warning, we trust that maybe this is the way friendships work in France, or in Horie’s France. And when Jan opens up, we assume the two friends must have a history to justify it – but we’re never told that, so we’re free to speculate all sorts of relationships. And then at the end we find that the narrator wonders if he has been presumptious. Like, it was a weird relationship all along, but the narrator never considered how weird. And why not? Because things always get weird for expats? Because after all these years he’s still not sure he understands how the French do things?
Jan’s landlady tells the narrator over lunch that Jan had talked about him before he came. Saying that you can’t believe national stereotypes – we always hear that Japanese are workaholics, but I have a Japanese friend who’s as happy-go-lucky as they come. And the narrator turns it into a nice joke – he’s adroit that way. But for the reader it sinks in: this story is about the fragility and unknowability of friendship at all times, but particularly across cultures.
There’s more going on than that: I’ve only touched on the Holocaust theme, for example, which is handled very deftly and lightly, but with reverence. And there’s the way photos and dream-images bleed into each other – there’s a lot of thinking about how the images captures thought, or transcends it. It is, in short, a very deep story, but told with a wonderfully delicate and light touch. This is the work of a master.
The other two stories are somewhat less memorable. The first, “Sunauri ga tōru 砂売りが通る” (The Sandman goes by) has the narrator getting back together with the younger sister of a deceased friend, on the third anniversary of the friend’s death. She had been a child when the narrator knew her, but now she is an adult, divorced, with a daughter of her own. Most of the story involves the three of them walking on a beach; we also get reminiscences of the friend, the woman’s childhood, and the narrator’s time in France. The second story, “Shiroato nite 城址にて” (At the ruined castle) takes place during one of the narrator’s earlier trips to France. He visits a (different) friend in Normandy, and the two of them climb the wall into a historic site where an old castle is being excavated and rebuilt. They’re caught by the crotchety caretaker and separated. The narrator ends up wandering alone in the dark, broke, almost panicked before the friend and his wife find him. These stories share the title novella’s prose style and its way of balancing the perspective of a lone individual against his need for others and/or others’ need for him. They’re not quite as moving, but then maybe that’s why they didn’t get the Prize.