A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

BOOK REVIEW:  A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Vintage International, 1989, ISBN 0-375-71894-X

Ok, it’s a done deal.  I’m officially on the Haruki Murakami bandwagon.

Murakami had pretty much flown under my radar until recently, when I read the hue and cry surrounding the late release of the English translation of his newest work, 1Q84 (already released in Japan in 2009, but not slated to reach the States until 2011).  When a friend of mine recently gushed about discovering him for herself, I decided that it was time I found out what all the fuss was about, and I picked up a copy of A Wild Sheep Chase, the book that vaulted Murakami into the public eye in 1989.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I was worried that I would find some highly intellectual, remote and ethereal prose weighed with hyper-cultural, obtuse relevance (it was the 1980s, after all).  What I found was a simple yet engaging story that kept me guessing, not only because I couldn’t see what was coming, but also because figuring out the ending was not really the point.  It’s a cliché, but yes, the journey was more important in this book, than was the destination.  And it’s a pretty quirky journey.

The story?  Our hero is a non-descript young man who lives an unremarkable life in Tokyo, partial owner of a fly-by-night advertising and translation agency.  Recently divorced, he finds himself floating through his days, until he is approached by a mysterious man in a black suit who gives him what amounts to an ultimatum: find a peculiar sheep with a star marking in its back that appeared in a photograph used in one of the company’s advertising brochures (the photograph came from an old friend that he had not seen in over a year).  If he doesn’t find the sheep, he will be subject to some dire, oblique consequences.  So, he sets out to find this sheep.  That’s right – a sheep.  One with a star on its back.

Sound a little bizarre and surreal?  It is.  And there are a few parts of the book that did get pretty esoteric – and I learned more about the history of sheep in Japan that I’ll ever need to know again.  I wish I knew more about general Japanese history, or Japanese literary development, to put Murakami’s influences in context.  But I didn’t, and although I’m sure I missed a few of the references and didn’t fully comprehend the cultural implications or landscapes described, I don’t think my reading or enjoyment of the book suffered at all.  The more deeply philosophical parts were not obscure enough or of long enough duration to distract me from the beauty of the writing itself.

You know how some Japanese art is beautiful in its simplicity, or in how it uses few lines to denote motion and grace?  Murakami’s writing is like that.  The writing is contemporary and clean, with details used very sparingly yet clearly, giving the reader an empathetic sense of place and ambiance.  However, the “clutter” that is left out includes personalization and sympathy.   We end up feeling like we know the characters and we care what happens to them, but there is a distinct sense of being removed from them.  Case in point – very few of the characters in the book are named.  Instead, they are described:  “my wife”, “my girlfriend”, “my partner”, the Boss, the chauffer, the man in the black suit…  The few that are named are known by nickname only:  J (a friend) and the Rat (the friend with the photograph).  Only the cat, Kipper, is assigned a name, and that occurs in the course of the story.  We don’t even know the name of the main character.  Yet, with Murakami’s sparse prose, we don’t really need names; they would be somewhat superfluous and distracting.

This isolation from the characters themselves does not feel cold, however; the feeling I got was more one of purity.  Purity of story, of environment.  The man whose narration takes us through the book also feels isolated and ungrounded, yet he accepts this matter of factly.  He’s not sure why his marriage ended, for “no reason I could put it all down to.”  His girlfriend is unremarkable, except for her ears, which are, by all accounts, exceptional.  He responds rather placidly to the seemingly impossible task laid out for him, quits his agency without any angst, and only reacts with anger once (which turns out to be a pretty catalytic action).  Yet he is not a cold person, nor guarded.  He simply is what he is.  And honestly, his somewhat quirky antipathy is pretty familiar in our modern world.

So what is the overarching concept of A Wild Sheep Chase?  What is its moral?  I honestly don’t think there is one; no railing against the world or circumstance, no high moral ground, no ominous warning of what the future portends nor a clear cut indication of a happily ever after.  It simply is what it is, which is strangely evocative and very entertaining.

I’m not sure if Haruki Murakami will make it into my Top 10 Favorite Authors list, and I won’t be one of those literary fans waiting with baited breath for 1Q84 to be translated into English.  But I do have another one of his books on my dresser awaiting its turn in the pile of books I am looking forward to reading, and I’m very interested in finding out if I have the same reaction to it as I did to A Wild Sheep Chase.  Which is to say, I enjoyed its atypical style and unorthodox story line.  In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and am looking forward to embarking with Murakami on the next one.

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~ by arcticwren on February 10, 2010.

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