A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami refuses to explain what his stories are about or any symblolism in his writing. Instead he says that the reader’s interpretations are as valid as his own. (Rubin, Jay. The Other World of Murakami Haruki.  Japan Quarterly 39 (1992): 490-500.)

I really like that.

This is a novel about sheep, one particular and very powerful sheep.

The back cover explains:

A twenty-something advertising executive receives a postcard from a friend, and casually appropriates the image for an insurance company’s advertisement. What he doesn’t realize is that included in the pastoral scene is a mutant sheep with a star on its back, and using this photo he has unwittingly captured the attention of a man in black who offers a menacing ultimatum: find the sheep or face dire consequences. 

That kind of makes sense and for me brought up images of BladeRunner’s android animals. But it’s not like that at all.

The novel begins with the narrator, a 29-year-old copywriter, returning from a funeral for an old girlfriend and confronting his estranged wife, who left him for friend of his. He goes through a period of mourning (the first couple of chapters) for the marriage before finding a new girlfriend, one who has extraordinary powers centered around her ears. She works as an ear model, as well as a copy editor and a well-placed prostitute. He becomes attracted to several photographs of her ears, tracks her down and they become lovers.

The adventure begins when his girlfriend predicts he will be involved in something about sheep. He is soon called into work by his alcoholic partner and learns that he inadvertently used a photograph of some sheep in a newsletter that has caught the attention of a powerful right-wing Big Boss.

The narrator is taken to meet the Big Boss’ lieutenant and is forced to undertake the search for a particular sheep with a star on its back. The mysterious sheep is believed to have possessed the Big Boss as a young man and helped him rise in power. That’s right, the sheep has the ability to inhabit and possess men. The narrator reluctantly agrees to search for the sheep. His girlfriend joins him and using the special power of her ears she leads him to a sheep professor. Their quest eventually leads them toward a strange confrontation with the narrator’s lost friend, The Rat, who sent him the original picture with the mysterious sheep.

Murakami had me hooked by the fourth chapter: The Whale’s Penis and the Woman with Three Occupations . I appreciated how he took seemingly unrelated elements: a certain exhibit at an aquarium from his childhood and the unusual beauty of his new girlfriend. Murakami explores beauty and objectification without being becoming preachy.

While Murakami enjoys critical acclaim in Japan, as well as in the United States, he does have his detractors. The usual criticism is that his writing has not gone beyond popular success to appeal to intellectuals. The claim is that he writes to be a commercial success and avoids serious exploration in his writing.

Haruki Murakami is part of a generation of Japanese that enjoyed prosperity following the difficult post-war years and admired American culture. As a writer, Murakami, differs from earlier Japanese writers in that he does not focus his writing on the world of Japan but seems to be preoccupied with exploring other worlds  that he invents.

Murakami does not hesitate to incorporate elements of other cultures in his stories. The narrator in A Wild Sheep Chase reads American magazines and listens to American music during a critical point in the novel which makes these elements from outside Japan are intrinsic to the story.

What Murakami has done in A Wild Sheep Chase is explore the human psyche with more focus on asking questions than providing answers. As French play write Eugene Ionesco wrote, It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.  In this respect, Murakami writes very successfully in the Japanese tradition.

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  • […] came to after several years of writing and studying on my own. My first blog posts were a review of Haruki Murakami and some thoughts on Mark Twain’s anti-war writing. My interests have not changed greatly since […]