Disclaimer to fans: A Wild Sheep Chase is the ONLY novel of Haruki Murakami I have read….
So back off….But seriously, I kept thinking something was missing from the book a day after I had completed reading it…Granted, there were other distractions going on in this narrative to keep my figurative head on a swivel, but besides the engaging storyline, ambiguous animal referents, cool aphorisms etc…It occurred to me and I did a thumb-lift, fanning the pages and there it was: Murakami forgot to name the characters…I felt sheepish.
Murakami by my reckoning, along with Roth, McCarthy and Atwood, is one of the most widely read of the possible 2009 Nobel candidates. Go to any major chain bookseller and you will likely find at least five of his novels in translation. There are those literary brow elevation types that find popularity off-putting, I guess their equation goes: widely read = trite, petty, superficial. Dunno about math, but I think Umberto Ecco manages to carry some weight in both popular and literary camps.
A Wild Sheep Chase was first published in Japan in 1982. It was a third novel in the so called Rat Trilogy and the first two have not been translated into English as Murakami felt they are weak efforts. After boiling and simmering it can be reduced to a linear plotted mystery slash adventure slash quest that takes place in Tokyo and the wilds of northern Japan in the 1970’s. The holy grail of the quest is a singular sheep of unknown breed bearing a star shaped mark on its back.
The first person narrator, the unnamed protagonist, has been recently divorced and suffers from mild boredom to full blown angst. His is a highly sensitized imagination and allows Murakami full freedom in his narrative to range from miniaturist attention in painting details, to opening up into (the too abused term) Magic Realism terrain. Disarming and droll, reading the dialogue parts out loud, the tone is something I could imagine hearing in personal casual conversation among friends. Its what we lit-crits like to call (to use a highly refined term) Laid Back Cool. Our erstwhile hero has the uncanny ability to frame things in glib generalities (this is even pointed out to him by other characters). As mentioned earlier, there are no proper named characters in the novel. Two peripheral character- friends are referred by a single letter ‘J’. Other than the narrator, the characters have titles: The Rat, The Boss, The Strange Man, The Chauffeur, my girlfriend, The Sheep Professor, The Dolphin Hotel owner and so on… Our disabused hero is in a state of spiritual resignation:
We can if we choose, wonder aimlessly over the continent of the arbitrary. Rootless as some winged seed blown about on a serendipitous spring breeze. Nonetheless, we can at the same breath deny that there is such a thing as coincidence. What’s done is done, what’s yet to be, is clearly yet to be. And so on. In other words, sandwiched as we are between the ‘everything’ that is behind us, and the ‘zero’ beyond us, ours is the ephemeral existence in which there is neither coincidence or possibility. In actual practice, however, distinctions between the two interpretations amount to precious little.
Buried under the petty surfaces, the multitude of references to mass consumables (beer, wine, 2 packs of cigs a day), the icons of popular music, is a sense of a disconnection and isolation. Imagery of solipsism (fancy word meaning the theory that the self can only know its own reality) abounds, a severed whale’s penis in its own glass case, the aquarium images, all speak to each entitie’s having a self contained reality. Enter the mysterious star-backed sheep into this vacuum. It is only until The Strange Man (functioning as a Mephistopheles of sorts) drops a figurative bomb to our hero that the Sheep’s function on a Uber level is apparent. Its so tempting (at least with my lazy readers mind) to quickly file it under “sheep = allegory for_______” and stow for later ‘use’. Like Kafka (to whom Murakami has openly said is a starting point for his fiction) and like an earlier reviewed Tatyana Tolstaya novel, The Slynx, its incorrect to pin the ‘allegory’ badge to these works. These associations are ambiguous, and suggestive of multiple meanings. They are totally open to individual interpretations rather than a set of instructions. The associations are not meant to be ‘find the hidden idea/institution/concept puzzles’ put in by the authors. I disagree with one reviewer who has claimed The Sheep stands precisely for Right Wing Evangelical Christians. (I made that last part up- that’s actually what my knee-jerk find the meaning in the symbol reader-self did).
What I found most interesting is the book’s last section that takes part in the remote northern mountains. As our hero and his girlfriend with the portentous ears trek up to the last leg of the quest, their journey up the mountain to the high meadow is like a spiritual passage, they had to pass by the treacherous, windswept ‘dead man’s curve, where they topped out into the peaceful vast mountain meadow. There are several associations with Shinto in this section: the animism of ‘the sheepman’, time is in temporary suspension (the grandfather clock needs winding) and the suggestion of a portal (the bedroom mirror). I am not up on my knowledge of Buddhism, but I am guessing digging in that direction would be fruitful.
What I took away.
First a mention must be made about this translation by Alfred Birnbaum. It is excellent. I have gathered translators of some of his other Englished novels is a mixed bag, and there is a controversy about how much finally was edited out of the English version of his most acclaimed novel, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle… I have no problems with Murakami’s famous western pop culture references, indeed, without a few place names, the lion’s share of this story could have taken place in California. Murakami’s narrator’s voice and sensibilities hit close to home, particularly the tone and take of his humor, and his zany more than slightly askew entry points into observations about his culture’s traditions, yet at the same time showing a tenacity in the face of gloom. Gloom IS a direction on Murakami’s compass, but using its magnetic point as a reference we think there are ways around it…. just stay away from those ancient cave openings.