A Grotesque Vignette from Haruki Murakami’s Latest Novel

They spent an hour at an express-train station with the stationmaster, going over the details of the rebuilding project. It was lunchtime, so they ordered in bentos and ate together in the stationmaster’s office. Afterward they chatted over tea. The stationmaster, a friendly, heavyset middle-aged man, told them some fascinating stories about things he’d experienced in his career. Tsukuru loved going to sites and hearing these kinds of stories. The topic turned to lost property, more specifically to the huge amount of lost-and-found items left behind on trains and in stations, and the unusual, strange items among them—the ashes of cremated people, wigs, prosthetic legs, the manuscript of a novel (the stationmaster read a little bit of it and found it dull), a neatly wrapped, bloodstained shirt in a box, a live pit viper, forty color photos of women’s vaginas, a large wooden gong, the kind Buddhist priests strike as they chant sutras …

“Sometimes you’re not sure what to do with them,” the stationmaster said. “A friend of mine who runs another station turned in a Boston bag once that had a dead fetus inside. Thankfully, I’ve never had that kind of experience myself. But once, when I was a stationmaster at another station, someone brought in two fingers preserved in formaldehyde.”

“That’s pretty grotesque,” Tsukuru said.

“Yes, it sure was. Two small fingers floating in liquid, kept in what looked like a small mayonnaise jar, all inside a pretty cloth bag. Looked like a child’s fingers severed at the base. Naturally we contacted the police, since we thought it might be connected to a crime. The police came over immediately and took the jar away.”

The stationmaster drank a sip of tea.

“A week later the same police officer who’d taken the fingers stopped by. He questioned the station employee who’d found the jar in the restroom again. I was present for the questioning. According to the officer, the fingers in the jar weren’t those of a child. The forensics lab determined that they belonged to an adult. The reason they were so small was that they were sixth, vestigial fingers. The officer said that sometimes people have extra fingers. Most of the time the parents want to get rid of the deformity, so they have the fingers amputated when the child’s still a baby, but there are some people who, as adults, still have all six fingers. The ones that were found were an example—the fingers of an adult who had had them surgically removed, then preserved in formaldehyde. The lab estimated the fingers to be those of a man, age mid-twenties to mid-thirties, though they couldn’t tell how long it had been since the fingers had been amputated. I can’t imagine how they’d come to be forgotten, or perhaps thrown away, in the station restroom. But it doesn’t seem that they were connected to any crime. In the end the police kept them, and no one ever came forward to claim them. For all I know, they may still be in a police warehouse somewhere.”

“That’s a weird story,” Tsukuru said. “Why would he keep those sixth fingers until he became an adult and then suddenly decide to amputate them?”

“It’s a mystery. It got me interested in the phenomenon, though, and I started looking into it. The technical term is hyperdactyly, and there have been lots of famous people who’ve had it. It’s unclear whether it’s true or not, but there was some evidence that Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the famous leader of the Sengoku period, had two thumbs. There are plenty of other examples. There was a famous pianist who had the condition, a novelist, an artist, a baseball player. In fiction, Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs had six fingers. It’s not all that unusual, and genetically it’s a dominant trait. There are variations among different races, but in general, one out of every five hundred people is born with six fingers. As I said, though, the vast majority of their parents have the extra fingers amputated before their children’s first birthdays, when kids begin to develop fine-motor skills. So we hardly ever run across someone with the condition. It was the same for me. Until that jar was found in the station, I’d never even heard of such a thing.”

From Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

4 thoughts on “A Grotesque Vignette from Haruki Murakami’s Latest Novel”

  1. […] What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who may or may not travel around with a bag of human fingers. The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde). […]

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