Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey
written by Haruki Murakami and narrated by Rebecca Curtis

 

I met that elderly monkey in a small Japanese-style inn in a hot-springs town in Gunma Prefecture, some five years ago. It was a rustic or, more precisely, decrepit inn, barely hanging on, where I just happened to spend a night.

I was travelling around, wherever the spirit led me, and it was already past 7 p.m. when I arrived at the hot-springs town and got off the train. Autumn was nearly over, the sun had long since set, and the place was enveloped in that special navy-blue darkness particular to mountainous areas. A cold, biting wind blew down from the peaks, sending fist-size leaves rustling along the street.

I walked through the center of the town in search of a place to stay, but none of the decent inns would take in guests after the dinner hour had passed. I stopped at five or six places, but they all turned me down flat. Finally, in a deserted area outside town, I came across an inn that would take me. It was a desolate-looking, ramshackle place, almost a flophouse. It had seen a lot of years go by, but it had none of the quaint appeal you might expect in an old inn. Fittings here and there were ever so slightly slanted, as if slapdash repairs had been made that didn’t mesh with the rest of the place. I doubted it would make it through the next earthquake, and I could only hope that no temblor would hit while I was there.

The inn didn’t serve dinner, but breakfast was included, and the rate for one night was incredibly cheap. Inside the entrance was a plain reception desk, behind which sat a completely hairless old man—devoid of even eyebrows—who took my payment for one night in advance. The lack of eyebrows made the old man’s largish eyes seem to glisten bizarrely, glaringly. On a cushion on the floor beside him, a big brown cat, equally ancient, was sacked out, sound asleep. Something must have been wrong with its nose, for it snored louder than any cat I’d ever heard. Occasionally the rhythm of its snores fitfully missed a beat. Everything in this inn seemed to be old and falling apart.

The room I was shown to was cramped, like the storage area where one keeps futon bedding; the ceiling light was dim, and the flooring under the tatami creaked ominously with each step. But it was too late to be particular. I told myself I should be happy to have a roof over my head and a futon to sleep on.

I put my one piece of luggage, a large shoulder bag, down on the floor and set off back to town. (This wasn’t exactly the type of room I wanted to lounge around in.) I went into a nearby soba-noodle shop and had a simple dinner. It was that or nothing, since there were no other restaurants open. I had a beer, some bar snacks, and some hot soba. The soba was mediocre, the soup lukewarm, but, again, I wasn’t about to complain. It beat going to bed on an empty stomach. After I left the soba shop, I thought I’d buy some snacks and a small bottle of whiskey, but I couldn’t find a convenience store. It was after eight, and the only places open were the shooting-gallery game centers typically found in hot-springs towns. So I hoofed it back to the inn, changed into a yukata robe, and went downstairs to take a bath.

Compared with the shabby building and facilities, the hot-springs bath at the inn was surprisingly wonderful. The steaming water was a thick green color, not diluted, the sulfur odor more pungent than anything I’d ever experienced, and I soaked there, warming myself to the bone. There were no other bathers (I had no idea if there were even any other guests at the inn), and I was able to enjoy a long, leisurely bath. After a while, I felt a little light-headed and got out to cool off, then got back into the tub. Maybe this decrepit-looking inn was a good choice after all, I thought. It was certainly more peaceful than bathing with some noisy tour group, the way you do in the larger inns.

I was soaking in the bath for the third time when the monkey slid the glass door open with a clatter and came inside. “Excuse me,” he said in a low voice. It took me a while to realize that he was a monkey. All the thick hot water had left me a bit dazed, and I’d never expected to hear a monkey speak, so I couldn’t immediately make the connection between what I was seeing and the fact that this was an actual monkey. The monkey closed the door behind him, straightened out the little buckets that lay strewn about, and stuck a thermometer into the bath to check the temperature. He gazed intently at the dial on the thermometer, his eyes narrowed, for all the world like a bacteriologist isolating some new strain of pathogen.

“How is the bath?” the monkey asked me.

“It’s very nice. Thank you,” I said. My voice reverberated densely, softly, in the steam. It sounded almost mythological, not like my own voice but, rather, like an echo from the past returning from deep in the forest. And that echo was . . . hold on a second. What was a monkey doing here? And why was he speaking my language?

“Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked, his voice still low. He had the clear, alluring voice of a baritone in a doo-wop group. Not at all what you would expect. But nothing was odd about his voice: if you closed your eyes and listened, you’d think it was an ordinary person speaking.

“Yes, thanks,” I replied. It wasn’t as if I’d been sitting there hoping that someone would come and scrub my back, but if I turned him down I was afraid he might think I was opposed to having a monkey do it. I figured it was a kind offer on his part, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I slowly got up out of the tub and plunked myself down on a little wooden platform, with my back to the monkey.

The monkey didn’t have any clothes on. Which, of course, is usually the case for a monkey, so it didn’t strike me as odd. He seemed to be fairly old; he had a lot of white in his hair. He brought over a small towel, rubbed soap on it, and with a practiced hand gave my back a good scrubbing.

“It’s got very cold these days, hasn’t it?” the monkey remarked.

“That it has.”

“Before long this place will be covered in snow. And then they’ll have to shovel snow from the roofs, which is no easy task, believe me.”

There was a brief pause, and I jumped in. “So you can speak human language?”

“I can indeed,” the monkey replied briskly. He was probably asked that a lot. “I was raised by humans from an early age, and before I knew it I was able to speak. I lived for quite a long time in Tokyo, in Shinagawa.”

“What part of Shinagawa?”

“Around Gotenyama.”

“That’s a nice area.”

“Yes, as you know, it’s a very pleasant place to live. Nearby is the Gotenyama Garden, and I enjoyed the natural scenery there.”

Our conversation paused at this point. The monkey continued firmly scrubbing my back (which felt great), and all the while I tried to puzzle things out rationally. A monkey raised in Shinagawa? The Gotenyama Garden? And such a fluent speaker? How was that possible? This was a monkey, for goodness’ sake. A monkey, and nothing else.

“I live in Minato-ku,” I said, a basically meaningless statement.

“We were almost neighbors, then,” the monkey said in a friendly tone.

“What kind of person raised you in Shinagawa?” I asked.

“My master was a college professor. He specialized in physics, and held a chair at Tokyo Gakugei University.”

“Quite an intellectual, then.”

“He certainly was. He loved music more than anything, particularly the music of Bruckner and Richard Strauss. Thanks to which, I developed a fondness for that music myself. I heard it all the time. Picked up a knowledge of it without even realizing it, you could say.”

“You enjoy Bruckner?”

“Yes. His Seventh Symphony. I always find the third movement particularly uplifting.”

“I often listen to his Ninth Symphony,” I chimed in. Another pretty meaningless statement.

“Yes, that’s truly lovely music,” the monkey said.

“So that professor taught you language?”

“He did. He didn’t have any children, and, perhaps to compensate for that, he trained me fairly strictly whenever he had time. He was very patient, a person who valued order and regularity above all. He was a serious person whose favorite saying was that the repetition of accurate facts was the true road to wisdom. His wife was a quiet, sweet person, always kind to me. They got along well, and I hesitate to mention this to an outsider, but, believe me, their nighttime activities could be quite intense.”

“Really,” I said.

The monkey finally finished scrubbing my back. “Thanks for your patience,” he said, and bowed his head.

“Thank you,” I said. “It really felt good. So, do you work here at this inn?”

“I do. They’ve been kind enough to let me work here. The larger, more upscale inns would never hire a monkey. But they’re always shorthanded around here and, if you can make yourself useful, they don’t care if you’re a monkey or whatever. For a monkey, the pay is minimal, and they let me work only where I can stay mostly out of sight. Straightening up the bath area, cleaning, things of that sort. Most guests would be shocked if a monkey served them tea and so on. Working in the kitchen is out, too, since I’d run into issues with the food-sanitation law.”

“Have you been working here for a long time?” I asked.

“It’s been about three years.”


“But you must have gone through all sorts of things before you settled down here?”

The monkey gave a quick nod. “Very true.”

I hesitated, but then came out and asked him, “If you don’t mind, could you tell me more about your background?”

The monkey considered this, and then said, “Yes, that would be fine. It might not be as interesting as you expect, but I’m off work at ten and I could stop by your room after that. Would that be convenient?”

“Certainly,” I replied. “I’d be grateful if you could bring some beer then.”

“Understood. Some cold beers it is. Would Sapporo be all right?”

“That would be fine. So, you drink beer?”

“A little bit, yes.”

“Then please bring two large bottles.”

“Of course. If I understand correctly, you are staying in the Araiso Suite, on the second floor?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“It’s a little strange, though, don’t you think?” the monkey said. “An inn in the mountains with a room named araiso—‘rugged shore.’ ” He chuckled. I’d never in my life heard a monkey laugh. But I guess monkeys do laugh, and even cry, at times. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given that he was talking.

“By the way, do you have a name?” I asked.

“No, no name, per se. But everyone calls me the Shinagawa Monkey.”

The monkey slid open the glass door, turned, and gave a polite bow, then slowly closed the door.

It was a little past ten when the monkey came to the Araiso Suite, bearing a tray with two large bottles of beer. In addition to the beer, the tray held a bottle opener, two glasses, and some snacks: dried, seasoned squid and a bag of kakipi—rice crackers with peanuts. Typical bar snacks. This was one attentive monkey.

The monkey was dressed now, in gray sweatpants and a thick, long-sleeved shirt with “I♥NY” printed on it, probably some kid’s hand-me-downs.

There was no table in the room, so we sat, side by side, on some thin zabuton cushions, and leaned back against the wall. The monkey used the opener to pop the cap off one of the beers and poured out two glasses. Silently we clinked our glasses together in a little toast.

“Thanks for the drinks,” the monkey said, and happily gulped the cold beer. I drank some as well. Honestly, it felt odd to be seated next to a monkey, sharing a beer, but I guess you get used to it.

“A beer after work can’t be beat,” the monkey said, wiping his mouth with the hairy back of his hand. “But, for a monkey, the opportunities to have a beer like this are few and far between.”

“Do you live here at the inn?”

“Yes, there’s a room, sort of an attic, where they let me sleep. There are mice from time to time, so it’s hard to relax there, but I’m a monkey, so I have to be thankful to have a bed to sleep in and three square meals a day. Not that it’s paradise or anything.”

The monkey had finished his first glass, so I poured him another.

“Much obliged,” he said politely.

“Have you lived not just with humans but with your own kind? With other monkeys, I mean?” I asked. There were so many things I wanted to ask him.

“Yes, several times,” the monkey answered, his face clouding over slightly. The wrinkles beside his eyes formed deep folds. “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.”

“And you couldn’t listen to Bruckner, either.”

“True. That’s not part of my life now,” the Shinagawa Monkey said, and drank some more beer. I studied his face, but, since it was red to begin with, I didn’t notice it turning any redder. I figured this monkey could hold his liquor. Or maybe with monkeys you can’t tell from their faces when they’re drunk.

“The other thing that really tormented me was relations with females.”

“I see,” I said. “And by ‘relations’ with females you mean—?”

“In short, I didn’t feel a speck of sexual desire for female monkeys. I had a lot of opportunities to be with them, but never really felt like it.”

“So female monkeys didn’t turn you on, even though you’re a monkey yourself?”

“Yes. That’s exactly right. It’s embarrassing, but, honestly, I could only love human females.”

I was silent and drained my glass of beer. I opened the bag of crunchy snacks and grabbed a handful. “That could lead to some real problems, I would think.”

“Yes, real problems, indeed. Me being a monkey, after all, there was no way I could expect human females to respond to my desires. Plus, it runs counter to genetics.”

I waited for him to go on. The monkey rubbed hard behind his ear and finally continued.

“So I had to find another method of ridding myself of my unfulfilled desires.”

“What do you mean by ‘another method’?”

The monkey frowned deeply. His red face turned a bit darker.

“You may not believe me,” the monkey said. “You probably won’t believe me, I should say. But, from a certain point on, I started stealing the names of the women I fell for.”

“Stealing their names?”

“Correct. I’m not sure why, but I seem to have been born with a special talent for it. If I feel like it, I can steal somebody’s name and make it my own.”

A wave of confusion hit me.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I said. “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.’ ”


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