Your story in this week’s issue, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” is perhaps a continuation of a story that was published in The New Yorker in 2006, “A Shinagawa Monkey.” Where did the idea of this monkey who steals names come from, and what made you go back to him after so long?
After I published that first story about the monkey, I really wondered what fate might have befallen him after he was captured, but for a long time I didn’t have the opportunity to write a sequel. I figured I didn’t have to hurry, since the monkey would wait for me, wherever he happened to be.
Is there any significance to the fact that the monkey comes from the Shinagawa ward in Tokyo?
No, there’s no significance at all. It just had a nice ring to it. Speaking of which, Brooklyn Monkey sounds pretty good, too.
Is the monkey who is raised by humans and then outcast by them and by his own kind a symbol of something, or is he just a monkey?
Generally speaking, you wouldn’t expect a monkey to be out there actually stealing people’s names, so I have no problem with people thinking he must be some kind of symbol or metaphor, and that, likewise, names are a symbol or metaphor. That’s entirely up to the reader. For me (the author), I just thought it wouldn’t be so strange if there were a monkey somewhere who was obsessed with stealing people’s names.
In Japan, I gave a public reading of an abridged version of the story and the audience laughed a lot, which I enjoyed very much.
One motif in my fiction might be the inability to fit into a group, small or large. But if I were to go on and say something like, “In the literary world in Japan, too . . .” things might get a bit sticky, so it’s best to see the monkey as simply a monkey, and nothing more.
The monkey is “elderly” now, much older than he was in the first story. Has he changed in other ways?
He’s old and lonely, and he doesn’t belong anywhere. That’s the Shinagawa Monkey now. Let’s hope that he has, if only a little bit, taken on the pain of our own aging, loneliness, and isolation—mine and yours. Fiction can have an effect like that. Just like Madame Bovary taking on your sins.
Perhaps in writing him, you were able to discard some of your age and isolation and give it to him! Why did you make the monkey a fan of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony?
It’s because I listened to this symphony many times while writing this story. That’s the only reason. Hmmm . . . maybe the Shinagawa Monkey should write a book titled “Bruckner for Monkeys.”
Do you agree with him that possessing someone’s name is almost like possessing part of that person? In these days of social distancing, perhaps that would be the safest way to love someone?
That’s a wonderful thought. If there were a public lecture called “Love in the Time of the Coronavirus: An Evening With a Shinagawa Monkey,” I’d definitely want to hear it.
The narrator of the story is a writer and a curious, open-minded person. Is he a stand-in for you?
I’ve always loved listening to other people’s stories. And if the one I’m listening to happens to be told by a monkey, I think that makes it even more enjoyable.
The narrator says that the monkey’s story wouldn’t make a good piece of fiction because it has no theme or point. Do you think “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” has a theme or a point?
I’ve hardly ever thought about the theme or the point of the stories I write. I’ve had a number of opportunities to discuss my work with college students in their classes, and the students always seem to end up confused, because they can’t find the theme or the point of my stories. But that doesn’t bother me at all.
(Haruki Murakami’s responses translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel.)
Deborah Treisman is The New Yorker’s fiction editor and the host of its Fiction Podcast.