Thursday, 9 October 2008

The God of Bears

The God of Bears

(a translation of the short story "Kamisama" by Hiromi Kawakami)

Having been invited by a bear, I set out on a walk.

We walk to a riverbank about twenty minutes away by foot. I had been there before in early spring to watch the snipes, but this is the first time I’ve gone there to picnic in warm weather. Well, I said “a walk” earlier, but perhaps “a hike” would be more accurate.

He was a mature bear, so he was quite large. He had recently moved in to apartment number 305, three doors down from me. In a gesture I so rarely see these days, he presented “just moved in noodles” to everyone on our floor, as well as handing out 10 postcards to each of us. I thought it was a very considerate gesture, but perhaps he would need to be especially considerate to his neighbours, seeing as he was a bear.

In any case, during the conversation we had when I accepted the noodles, it became clear that the bear and I weren’t exactly total strangers.

Noticing the nameplate on my door, the bear asked, “You wouldn’t, by any chance, happen to be a native of ***** town, would you?”

I replied that I certainly was.

It turned out that the bear had received a great deal of help by someone or other whose uncle happened to have been deputy mayor of the town for a time. And apparently, this deputy mayor’s surname was the same as my own.

Looking back further, it appeared that the one-time deputy mayor was some sort of second cousin of my father’s.

Well, it was barely anything at all, but the bear looked very deeply moved by this connection and kept talking about it, using all sorts of “enishi words. The impression I got from his conduct, such as the manner he introduced himself to his neighbours, and the way in which he spoke, was that, if anything, he seemed to be rather an old-fashioned sort of bear.

Anyway, this bear and I are doing something between a walk and a hike. I’m not very knowledgeable about animals, so I can’t tell whether he’s a Japanese white collar bear, or a brown bear. Or perhaps even a Malay bear or something. Asking him to his face might be quite rude. I don’t even know his name. I tried asking him how I should address him. He first checked if there were any other bears in the area before answering:

“For the time being, I have no name and moreover, if I really am the only bear around here, it’s hardly necessary for me to have a name in the future either, is it? I like “anata” as a form of address – yes, that’s right, “anata” – but when the word leaves your mouth, if you could be so kind to be thinking of the Japanese characters for it rather than the spelling, that would be wonderful. But, of course, it’s not that important so please feel free to address me however you like.”

He really does seem like an antiquated bear. And not only is he antiquated, he also has a taste for logic, I decided.

The road to the riverbank runs alongside some rice paddies. It is a paved road, and occasionally cars pass us by. No matter which car it is, they always slow down a little before they reach us and drive slowly as they make big movements to avoid us. There is no sign of anyone passing us the other way. It is incredibly hot. There is no one working in the fields to be seen either. The bear's feet hitting the asphalt make a faint scraping sound, regular as clockwork.

“Aren’t you hot?”, I ask the bear.

“Whenever I walk on asphalt for a long time, I do tend to get a little tired,” he answers. “It’s not very far now to the riverside, so I’m fine, but thank you very much for your kind consideration,” he continues.

“But, if you should feel hot, then we could always head towards the main road and go to a rest stop or something,” he says, among other things, being very sensitive and thoughtful.

I was wearing a hat and, whatsmore, I don’t tend to have problems with the heat, so I declined the invitation to rest. I was wondering, however, if perhaps the bear himself wanted to take a break. We carried on walking for a short time without speaking.

We began to hear the distant sound of water. Before long, it had grown louder, and we arrived at the riverbank. There were many people there, fishing and swimming and so on. I put down my bags and wiped away the sweat with a towel. The bear stood with his tongue hanging out, panting a little.
As we were standing there, a small group of two men and a child approached us. One of the men was wearing sunglasses and the other had a snorkel hanging from his neck.

“Dad, it’s a bear!”, the child shouted in a loud voice.

“Nothing gets past you, son”, the snorkel replied.

“It’s a bear, see!”

“Hey! Hey! It’s a BEAR!”

This was repeated a number of times.

The snorkel quickly glanced in my direction to try and read my expression, but he wasn’t about to look the bear in the face. Sunglasses just stood there, saying nothing. The child was pulling the bear’s fur, kicking him hard and so on, until finally, with a loud cry of “Punch!”, he hit the bear in the stomach with his fist and ran away. The two men lazily followed him.

“Oh dear!”, the bear sighed after a while. “Those little ones, eh? They have no malice in them at all.”

I didn’t reply.

“The world is full of all sorts of people, of course. But the good children – they never mean any harm.”

And with that, before I could answer, he rushed off towards the edge of the river.

Small, thin fish are smoothly swimming by. The cold water soothes my burnt face. Looking closely, I notice that, within a rigid area, the fish swim upstream and downstream, again and again. It’s almost as if they are following the edges of a long, narrow rectangle. Perhaps this rectangle marks their territory. The bear also looks intently at the water. What is he looking at? I wonder if things in the water look the same to bears as they do to humans?

Suddenly, a stream of water rose from the surface as the bear splashed into the river. The bear stopped in the middle, where he swiftly plunged his right arm into the water and pulled out a fish. The long, thin fish still swimming along the riverbank looked to be at least three times bigger than this one.

“You must be very surprised!”, the bear said on his return. “It would have been better for me to have warned you before I went, but I’m afraid my feet just started moving by themselves. It’s big, isn’t it?”

He held the fish before my eyes, its fins glistening brightly in the sun. The others fishing in the river were pointing at us and talking about something or other. The bear seemed to be rather pleased with himself.

“Please let me present you with this. As a memento of the day.”

As he said this, he opened the top of the bag he’d been carrying over his shoulder. From inside a bundle of cloth, a small knife and chopping board emerged. After he had skilfully cut open the fish with the knife, he sprinkled it with some bay salt which he must have prepared in advance, and laid it down on some leaves he’d spread out.

“If you turn it over a few times, it should have dried out perfectly by the time we get home.”

From beginning to end, the bear had been very thorough in all he had done.

We sat on the grass, eating our picnic and watching the river. The bear had a long loaf of French bread in which he’d made small incisions here and there, stuffed with pate and radishes, I had a rice ball with a pickled plum, and we each had an orange after that. After we had slowly finished our meal, the bear said:

“If it’s OK with you, would you mind possibly giving me the peel of your orange?”

I gave it to him and he turned away from me to eat it.

He went to turn over the fish he’d left a little distance away, and then carefully washed the knife, chopping board and cups in the river. When he had finished drying them, he produced a big towel from his bag and handed it to me.

“Please use this when you have your afternoon nap. I’m just going to have a quick wander around the area. If you like, perhaps I can sing you a lullaby as you go to sleep?”, he asked sincerely.

I replied that I thought I’d be able to fall asleep without a lullaby, in response to which he developed a rather disappointed expression and quickly wandered off upstream.

When I awoke, the shadows of the trees had lengthened and I found the bear sleeping beside me, without a towel covering him. He was softly snoring. By the riverside, all that remained was a few people who were still fishing. I draped a towel over the bear, went to turn over the dried fish and noticed that there were now three fish there.

“Well, that was a good walk!”, he later exclaimed as he took his keys out of his bag in front of apartment number 305.

“I’d very much like us to have the opportunity to do things like this again.”

I nodded in agreement. After this, I thanked him for the dried fish and for everything else he’d done. He waved his paw vigorously in front of me and responded, “Not at all.”

“So then…”, I said, about to walk away, when the bear started to speak.


I looked up at the bear, waiting for his next word, but he just remained awkwardly silent. He really was a very big bear. This big bear cleared his throat with a noise that sounded something like “ururu” and looked rather embarrassed. I noticed that when he spoke in words, he used his mouth and voice in much the same way as humans do, but when he made other noises, such as clearing his throat or laughing, he reverted back to his natural bear voice.

“Would you be so kind as to hug me?” the bear asked.

“When two close friends part, it’s a custom of my hometown that they hug. Of course, if you’d rather not, than that’s perfectly fine.”

I consented.

The bear took one step backwards and extended both his arms wide. He put those arms around my shoulders and nuzzled his cheek against my own. He smelt like a bear. He nuzzled the opposite cheek as well and then once again wrapped his arms around my shoulders with great strength. The bear’s body was colder than I thought it would be.

“Today was most enjoyable. I feel like I’ve taken a very long journey and come back home again. May the blessings of the God of Bears rain down upon you. Oh, and the dried fish doesn’t keep that well so I think that you might prefer to eat it this evening, perhaps.”

I returned to my apartment and cooked the fish, had a bath and wrote a few words in my diary. I tried to envisage what the God of Bears might be like, but I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

It hadn’t been a bad day.

(very loosely translated by James Taverner, with a lot of help from Michael Emmerich’s notes in ‘Read Real Japanese’)

Translator’s Note:

This is a completely unauthorized translation, done purely for academic interest because I was sat at home ill one day. I'm more than happy to remove if this represents an infringement of copyright. If anything, I hope it promotes the author as well as Michael Emmerich's excellent "Read Real Japanese", Kodansha.


Unknown said...

What an awesome story.

justrestingmyeyes said...

That's very nice and wonderful.