A “Poor Aunt” Story, from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
I vaguely remember setting a goal of reading every Haruki Murakami book this year. Well that certainly didn’t happen. I love Murakami and will definitely reach this goal, but it didn’t happen this year. I did just finish Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of Murakami short stories, which was, of course, wonderful.
Like any collection of short stories, some stood out more to me than others, not necessarily because I liked them more, but because they are puzzling or unique or just resonate for different reasons. One of these, A “Poor Aunt” Story, made me really think. Then it made me demand that a friend and my brother read the story so we could discuss 🙂
The narrator in A “Poor Aunt” Story is a writer and he wants to write a story about a “poor aunt”:
Every wedding reception has a poor aunt. Almost no one bothers to introduce her. Almost no one even talks to her. No one asks her to give a speech. She sits at the table where she belongs, but she’s just there – like an empty milk bottle.
Oddly enough, the narrator doesn’t have a poor aunt and he cannot figure out why he’s called to write about one. Then, even more oddly, a poor aunt fixes herself to his back and he’s forced to carry her around with him day and night. Most friends can see the aunt on his back, but she takes different shapes for different people – for one of his friends the poor aunt is a dog. Regardless, the aunt makes his friends uncomfortable and some don’t want to be around him since she’s always propped up on his back. The narrator even ends up on a morning talk show to discuss the poor aunt.
Having the poor aunt on his back doesn’t make crafting the story about her any easier either. He discusses the situation with his friend, who has a poor aunt, and they determine that people can both be born poor aunts and can also become poor aunts over their lives. They think that some traumatic event in your childhood may lead you to someday be a poor aunt.
Then one day the poor aunt is suddenly gone from the narrator’s back. She just up and disappears after a train ride in which he encounters a mother and her two fighting children. Relieved but a little sad to have lost her, the narrator calls his old friend and wakes her. He seems to want to share what happened, but doesn’t.
So do you see why I asked a friend and my brother to read this story and discuss it with me? Its nuts, right? I mean, first off, I’ve never thought about the concept of a poor aunt. It’s depressing and lonely and a little mean. Second, does the narrator REALLY have a poor aunt stuck to his back or is this some sort of symbol for something else? And why does the back-riding poor aunt take different shapes for different people? Why does she make people nervous? How come she suddenly leaves him?
We discussed and pondered and wondered. We decided she was a real existence on his back, not just a symbol. But she’s a symbol as well, for something in your life that you may still feel bad/lonely/depressed/saddened about and that is why she made his friends nervous. My brother recounted the scene on the train, shortly after which the narrator notices the poor aunt has disappeared from his back. He noted that the encounter with the mother and two children was a pretty terrible one. The boy is ruining the girl’s hat and she is desperately trying to have her mother step in to reprimand the son, to no avail. She finally takes matters into her own hands and slaps her brother. The mother freaks out on the daughter:
“Get away from me,” the mother said. “Go over there.” She pointed at the empty seat next to mine.
The girl looked away, trying to ignore her mother’s outstretched finger, but it continued pointing at my left, as if it had been frozen in midair.
“Go on,” the mother insisted. “You’re not part of his family anymore.”
Resigned to her fate, the girl stood up with her hat and schoolbag, trudged across the aisle, and sat down next to me, head bowed. Hat on her lap, she tried smoothing its brim with her little fingers. It’s his fault, she was clearly thinking; he was going to tear the ribbon off my hat. Her cheeks were streaked with tears.
My brother sees the poor aunt leaving the narrator and attaching herself to the little girl, this being a childhood event which will shape that girl into becoming a poor aunt someday. How depressingly sad. And even worse, I think that the poor aunt was still with the narrator as he thinks, “I wanted to place a comforting hand on the shoulder of that little girl sobbing next to me, to tell her that she had been right, that she had done a great job of taking the hat that way. But of course I never touched her, never spoke to her.” I think if he had reached out to her, he may have prevented the poor aunt from affixing herself to the little girl.
I’ll post about some of the other stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but the poor aunt story was the most perplexing and interesting to me. If you’re interested, read the story online here. I would love to know what others think.