I’ve just read Haruki Murakami’s story “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey;” a really excellent and evocative short story. Today is my thirty eighth birthday.
I’m unsure of how to feel about my birthdays. I’m getting older. I find myself more preoccupied with receiving other people’s ministrations than I am truly exultant for the occasion. My life isn’t bad; I’m doing fine. Why do I tear up writing these words?
The author is traveling in a mountain village, and goes to a public bath. He meets a monkey who can speak his language. They get to talking, and share a beer together. The monkey relates his experiences.
For various reasons, I was driven out, forcibly, from Shinagawa and released in Takasakiyama, the area down south that’s famous for its monkey park. I thought at first that I could live peaceably there, but things didn’t work out that way. The other monkeys were my dear comrades, don’t get me wrong, but, having been raised in a human household, by the professor and his wife, I just couldn’t express my feelings well to them. We had little in common, and communication wasn’t easy. ‘You talk funny,’ they told me, and they sort of mocked me and bullied me. The female monkeys would giggle when they looked at me. Monkeys are extremely sensitive to the most minute differences. They found the way I acted comical, and it annoyed them, irritated them sometimes. It got harder for me to stay there, so eventually I went off on my own. Became a rogue monkey, in other words.”
“It must have been lonely for you.”
“Indeed it was. Nobody protected me, and I had to scrounge for food on my own and somehow survive. But the worst thing was not having anyone to communicate with. I couldn’t talk with monkeys or with humans. Isolation like that is heartrending. Takasakiyama is full of human visitors, but I couldn’t just start up a conversation with whomever I happened to come across. Do that and there’d be hell to pay. The upshot was that I wound up sort of neither here nor there, not part of human society, not part of the monkeys’ world. It was a harrowing existence.”
I related to this, very strongly. I feel like I possess a certain intelligence, and have applied myself significantly to turn that into real world skills. Yet I am fundamentally alone. Even with my wife and kids, with whom I share everything, there is some part of me that is locked up, silent, miserable. And that’s why I turn to writing, because in you, my reader, I can project all understanding and common sympathy.
The monkey has an attraction to human women, but can’t act on it because of the species barrier. So, he steals their names.
When you say you steal people’s names, does that mean that they completely lose their name?”
“No. They don’t totally lose their name. I steal part of their name, a fragment. But when I take that part the name gets less substantial, lighter than before. Like when the sun clouds over and your shadow on the ground gets that much paler. And, depending on the person, they might not be aware of the loss. They just have a sense that something’s a little off.”
“But some do clearly realize it, right? That a part of their name has been stolen?”
“Yes, of course. Sometimes they find they can’t remember their name. Quite inconvenient, a real bother, as you might imagine. And they may not even recognize their name for what it is. In some cases, they suffer through something close to an identity crisis. And it’s all my fault, since I stole that person’s name. I feel very sorry about that. I often feel the weight of a guilty conscience bearing down on me. I know it’s wrong, yet I can’t stop myself. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but my dopamine levels force me to do it. Like there’s a voice telling me, ‘Hey, go ahead, steal the name. It’s not like it’s illegal or anything.’ ”
Fundamentally, I do feel like something’s missing, like I’ve forgotten something essential. That there’s missing pieces of me scattered throughout my life that I’m trying to gather. Writing for me has been an attempt to recapture those pieces, the horcruxes outside me.