Shinagawa Monkey

There is a delightful short story in the current New Yorker (Feb 13 & 20, 2006) called “A Shinagawa Monkey”, by Haruki Murakami. It is a brief enigmatic piece, about 20 minutes reading time, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. If it is a parable, it is hard to say what it is a parable of; it is nominally about a monkey who steals names.

In Murakami’s story, Mizuki is approached by Yuko, a very pretty and popular classmate who seems to have everything going for her that life could offer. Yuko is very troubled with questions about jealousy, an emotion Mizuki has never really thought about and for which Mizuki can offer Yuko no answers. Sadly, Mizuki and her classmates learn that Yuko’s body has been found almost a week later; she has committed suicide.

Mizuki kept Yuko’s dormitory name tag, which Yuko had left with her for safekeeping. When she leaves school for the workaday world, she adds her own name tag to the little box where she stores mementos. She goes on to get married and takes employment with a Honda dealership.

The story begins with Mizuki’s horrifying experience that she is beginning to forget her name: she forgets only her own name and only when she is asked and needs to provide the answer “my name is …” right away. She forgets nothing else, but is worried it could be symptomatic of some deeper problem.

The story departs from the expected and ordinary with the discovery that a monkey has stolen the name tags. Why has he stolen the tags, and what is done when he is detected? How does Mizuki get her name back? It would be remarkably poor form to give away the story, which is highly recommendable.

But the story leaves us with far more questions than answers. Why a monkey, at all? Why, specifically, a sentient, feeling, highly articulate monkey? Why is this monkey living in the sewers of Tokyo, instead of a lush forestland, if indeed monkeys of any kind are native to the islands of Japan? Given the reasons this monkey ultimately offers for stealing the names, what is it about these name tags that completes his quest for human affection? What property of a name tag could cause us to forget our own names if we lost our tag?

Surely this is one most unusual monkey. These are most unusual name tags. What do they mean?

The western rush is to explain everything in terms of everything else already known, to “armchair” a given circumstance into the greater scheme of things. And this is the only method I know, too. Some one else, from a different culture, might see immediately that this monkey is here a symbol of thus-and-thus, and that the name tags, like lockets of human hair in still other cultures, have some magical mysterious power to capture the human soul.

Let harm come to that locket of hair, and the human will suffer. As you might imagine, Mizuki suffered terribly when she believed she might be losing her mind or identity.

But what can we say of this monkey?

We discover that the monkey seems to be one of a kind; there is no mention of other sentient monkeys. The monkey seems starved for human affection, as (it turns out) Mizuki was starved for affection, due to her parents’ deliberate remoteness in raising her. The monkey had fallen hopelessly in love with Yuko, in the beginning, despite his perception of Yuko’s dark spirit, and despite his recognition that there was utterly no chance of Yuko responding to the affection and liking of a monkey.

The monkey is also a victim of the circumstance of who he is. But what exactly, to the beautiful fast-track people in Tokyo and the rest of the world, is a monkey?

We wouldn’t deny that the monkey is the outsider looking in, while the world peers gratuitously back. Humans arrive to briefly inspect a given monkey habitat in the cages and monkey islands of the zoos of the world. The caged, controlled habitat, or else the complete isolation of the wild, is where the monkey belongs.

Monkey antics are amusing to most of us tittering humans, because everybody knows that monkeys don’t experience real human emotions, or think like people, or have wants and needs that can be sorted into hierarchies of thoughts and priorities. If monkey business occasionally strikes us as almost human or humorous, it is only because they aren’t what they so often play-act at. Monkeys are to be seen and inspected. At the end of the day we leave them to sling feces at the tourists, while we are free to leave and wander off, reinvigorated with smiling appreciation for what a difference there is between humans and those mere monkeys.

A sentient monkey is a monkey of a different color. Could any really exist? Despite the occasional revivals on the Discovery Channel, we think not, and the world thinks not; this storybook monkey must be a symbol, a device or artifice purely of the author’s invention. So what does he mean?

Does the sentient monkey symbolize all those who admire us, who perhaps want to emulate us, whom we in turn are generally encouraged to despise and ignore? Does he represent the outcast, or societal outcaste, a byproduct of the socially stratified societies of Japan and Europe of two hundred years ago? If the monkey is a symbol of exclusion, is he a symbol of those rejected at the personal level, or the societal – or both?

Or, is it possible that it is a mistake to read into it this much, as it’s a mistake to try to “interpret” most of the movies of Hollywood in recent decades?

The fact of the matter is, this particular monkey stole the name without permission of its owner, bringing great hurt and difficulty to her. She almost lost her identity. She almost never knew why. Such are the obvious and manifest dangers of sentient monkeys.

This monkey did turn out to be a rather nice monkey. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and promised to be good and not bother the people of Tokyo again. I hope I’m not giving too much away by revealing that he even promised to stop stealing names.

And this monkey also gave back to Mizuki something much more precious than the name tag. He gave to her the key to something else she had been missing since earliest childhood. He didn’t just steal name tags; for this monkey found there was more bundled into a name than just how people are expected to address us.

If we befriend a monkey, or even allow ourselves to be enviously spied upon by one, is it possible that we can lose our very identity, for example, our name? In rejecting others, rightly or otherwise, aren’t we rejecting that which they hope or assume we’ll recognize as a common value?

No one can tell. Here, as in real life, we have to decide for ourselves when it is really appropriate to risk exposing our identities to all those others.

©Alex Forbes Thursday, February 16, 2006

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