31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 7: “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami

May 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

In 1903, Henry James published a story called “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man named John Marcher who is absorbed by an abiding belief that some insurmountable catastrophe will come to define his life. He obsesses over this undefined event relentlessly, never allowing anyone to get close to him for fear that they too will be tainted by the event’s repercussions. At the end of the story, he realizes what the true nature of his catastrophe is: in all the time he has been wracked by a sense of impending doom and foreboding, he has allowed his life to pass him by.

“The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is Haruki Murakami’s take on James’s parable. It is the story of Junpei, who as a teenager is given one piece of life advice by his usually taciturn father: “Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three that have real meaning for him. No more, no less.” Junpei spends his adulthood obsessing over his father’s proclamation, convinced that he has already met one of the three women, who eventually went on to marry someone else:

Whenever Junpei met a new woman after that he would ask himself, Is this a woman who has real meaning for me? and the question would call forth a dilemma. For even as he continued to hope (as who does not?) that he would meet someone who had “real meaning” for him, he was afraid of playing his few remaining cards too early. Having failed to join with the very first important Other he encountered, Junpei lost confidence in his ability – the exceedingly important ability – to give outward expression to love at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. I may be the type who manages to grab all the pointless things in life but lets the really important things slip away. Whenever this thought crossed his mind – which was often – his heart would sink down to a place devoid of light and warmth.

Junpei’s thought process sets him somewhat apart from Marcher in James’s story; the latter is too egotistical and self-absorbed to have any awareness of his essential plight until it is too late. By contrast, Junpei desperately wants to make a connection with one of the three women who will have “real meaning” in his life and is terrified of allowing the opportunity to pass him by.

Junpei becomes a writer of short stories because, he says, he lacks the patience to write novels: “He simply could not maintain the concentration it took to write a story over a long period of time.” At a party one night, he meets a woman named Kirie, with whom he begins a romantic involvement. (Junpei’s first thought when he sees Kirie is, “Here is a woman with excellent posture.”) In bed one night, she asks him what he is writing and he tells her that he is in the middle of a story about a female internist who is having an affair with a surgeon at the hospital where she works. Out walking one day, the internist finds a kidney-shaped stone, which she takes to her office to use as a paperweight. Each night she leaves the stone in the same place on her desk, and each morning when she returns it has moved to a different location.

The stone that moves of its own volition is the only fantastical element that Murakami allows himself in this story. Fans of his more surrealistic dreamscapes, such as the novel Kafka on the Shore, might find this disappointing, but there is a trade-off here: in place of fancy, Murakami substitutes real emotional heft. The reader gets caught up intimately in Junpei’s dilemma and when Kirie disappears, her absence registers with a pang that is undeniable, even though she has told Junpei that she is not able to engage in a serious relationship: “I want to concentrate completely on what I’m doing now. If I were living with somebody – if I had a deep emotional involvement with somebody – I might not be able to do that.” Kirie is willful and utterly convinced of what she wants; Junpei, who had succumbed to a series of “pale, indecisive relationships with one woman after another,” each culminating in “breakups [that] never entailed any discord or shouting matches because he never became involved with women who seemed as if they might be difficult to get rid of,” finds himself in the unfamiliar position of not being the one to end the relationship. When he is unable to locate Kirie (her phone number keeps returning a message saying that the number is out of service and she has never told him where she lives), he realizes how much she means to him and how bereft he is in her absence. She becomes the catalyst that allows him to complete his story about the doctor and her kidney-shaped stone.

Although he decides to number Kirie as the second woman in his life who has “real meaning” for him, his final epiphany is not quite so pessimistic as Marcher’s. “Numbers aren’t the important thing,” he thinks. “The countdown has no meaning. Now he knew: What matters is deciding in your heart to accept another person completely. And it always has to be the first time and the last.

Comments are closed.