Monday, February 06, 2006


This week's New Yorker posting brings us another story by a favored author, Haruki Murakami. Entitled "A Shinagawa Monkey," this is written in classic fable form.

According to (with further attribution to the Columbia University Press), a fable is a:
brief allegorical narrative, in verse or prose, illustrating a moral thesis or satirizing human beings. The characters of a fable are usually animals who talk and act like people while retaining their animal traits....
I might add that a fable is not meant to be taken literally, even as fantasy, and that the language is intentionally pedantic, as if the author were addressing a child, explaining the obvious with wide-eyed sincerity.

This story relates the tale of a woman who has begun to forget her own name. She doesn't forget anything else, and she only forgets her name when asked for it unexpectedly. However, the problem prompts her to buy a bracelet with her name engraved so that she can know who she is when asked; she also seeks counseling in a neighborhood clinic.

Through the counselor's somewhat mystical powers, it is eventually discovered that the woman's name (represented by a college nametag) has been stolen by... ta da... a talking monkey (the eponymous Shinagawa Monkey).

The monkey's captors intend to kill it, but the monkey negotiates its release in exchange for the return of the woman's name and a promise to go into the jungle and steal no more. (Animals who strike bargains is also a standard element of fable, of course.) Also, the monkey must reveal to the woman what was taken from her when she lost her name: to wit, the knowledge that her family never loved her, and that she does not love her husband. The moral is, oh, let's say: Your pain is part of who you are. If you ignore your heartache, you will lose yourself. It doesn't matter. The problem with the fable form is that it invites this type of summary; but as Flannery O'Connor and others have said, if a story can be reduced to one sentence, why write the whole story?

On a technical note, I thought Murakami's handling of dialogue was interesting.
When Mizuki opened the door to her dorm room, Yuko Matsunaka was standing there, dressed in a tight turtleneck sweater and jeans. “Do you have a minute to talk to me?” Yuko asked. “Sure,” Mizuki said, surprised. “I’m not doing anything special right now.” Although she knew Yuko, Mizuki had never had a private conversation with her, and it had never occurred to her that Yuko might ask her advice about anything personal. Mizuki motioned for her to sit down while she made some tea with the hot water in her thermos.

“Mizuki, have you ever felt jealous?” Yuko said all of a sudden.

Mizuki was surprised by the question, but she gave it some serious thought.

“No, I guess I never have,” she replied.

“Not even once?”

Note how in the first paragraph, both girls speak, with no paragraph break. That breaks the rules of dialogue formatting! But Murakami does this to transition into the more important part of the dialogue, in which he breaks in a very conventional manner, even adding a break before "'No, I guess I never have,' she replied." Not strictly necessary, but it adds emphasis.

Later, after the monkey has restored the woman's painful memories, we get this passage of banal back-and-forth:
“Did what I told you hurt you?”

“It did,” Mizuki said. “It hurt a lot.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“It’s all right. Deep down, I knew it already. It’s something I had to confront someday.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” the monkey said.

“Goodbye,” Mizuki said. “I don’t imagine we’ll meet again.”

“Take care,” the monkey said. “And thank you for saving my poor life.”
See what I mean about writing for children? But it's a fable, and so this is arguably appropriate.

Also, there's an interesting transition, mid-story, from an anecdote being related to the counselor directly into a flashback of the story being related. This latter device is seen all the time in film, but not so much in short stories (Mizuki is the protagonist):
“Anyway, this happened in October. Before dinner one night, I was in my room, doing my homework, when a junior named Yuko Matsunaka came to see me.... ”

When Mizuki opened the door to her dorm room, Yuko Matsunaka was standing there, dressed in a tight turtleneck sweater and jeans.
The narrative literally jumps from a recounting of an anecdote into the anecdote itself. This is indicated visually by an extra space (jump-cut) and an oversized cap at the beginning of the second paragraph; otherwise it would be jarring, to say the least. It seems odd to extract meaning from typography, but there it is. No less defensible than italics, I guess, which have their place as well.