The Stone Pillow
Let’s turn now to a one-time hookup (the translator’s word) and explore the nature of erotic bliss — the distance between touch and memory. The tone, as in all of the stories in this book, is autumnal, and failures of memory are openly admitted. A young woman writes tanka poems, and when she and her lover end up naked in each other’s arms, she warns him that when she orgasms, she will yell the name of someone else. He’s fine with this but he asks her to bite a towel because the walls are thin.
“Loving someone is like having a mental illness that’s not covered by health insurance,” she explains. (Again, we’re back to some place we’ve forgotten, young enough to seek, to feel the wildness of reality, just as we might feel listening to Patti Smith — perhaps Murakami’s most devoted fan — singing “Dancing Barefoot.”)
The story, “The Stone Pillow,” flows to a moment years later, when the narrator finds a tattered book, the young woman’s, and reads a few of the poems, opening up one of Murakami’s profoundly beautiful arias:
“If we’re blessed, though, a few words might remain by our side. They climb to the top of the hill during the night, crawl into small holes dug to fit the shape of their bodies, stay quiet still, and let the stormy winds of time blow past. The dawn finally breaks, the wild wind subsides, and the surviving words quietly peek out from the surface. For the most part they have small voices — they are shy and only have ambiguous ways of expressing themselves. Even so, they are ready to serve as witnesses. As honest, fair witnesses. But in order to create those enduring, long-suffering words, or else to find them and leave them behind, you must sacrifice, unconditionally, your own body, your very own heart. You have to lay down your neck on a cold stone pillow illuminated by the winter moon.”
Perhaps the most revelatory story in the book is a sequel to an earlier, widely anthologized piece, “A Shinagawa Monkey,” first published in The New Yorker in 2006. In it, a monkey sneaks around Tokyo stealing names — literally stealing them, so that the victims can’t remember their own names. “It’s a sickness I suffer from,” the monkey says, when he’s finally captured and interrogated. “Once I fix on a name, I can’t help myself. Not just any name, mind you. I’ll see a name that attracts me, and then I have to have it. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t control myself.”
All of the victims are young women whom the monkey finds desirable, and given the criticism sometimes leveled at the male gaze in Murakami’s work, it can be tempting to read the follow-up, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” as an overearnest attempt at atonement, an assurance that the impulse was driven by sincere admiration — love — not lechery.
“I make the name of the woman I love a part of me,” the monkey tells the narrator, over cold beers in a hotel in Gunma Prefecture. It is “a completely pure, platonic act. I simply possess a great love for that name inside of me, secretly. Like a gentle breeze wafting over a meadow.” Still, he says, he has made up his mind to stop.
One senses a greater task for the author: probing earlier creative impulses, examining the relationship between his own life and the act of conjuring lives out of nothing. This is the current that runs through all fiction — the musical frisson between the real and the imagined. What better way to remake, without wholly rejecting, your past self than to re-evaluate your creations, your fictive ghosts?