Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase

Posted on | January 15, 2010 | 28 Comments

The amazing thing about Murakami’s books is, you never know what you’re going to get – when that bridge between reality and surrealism will get crossed, and, what avenues the surrealism will take. Past experiences with Murakami have also taught me that the story is not going to be like anything I’ve read before. Experience is a great teacher.

A Wild Sheep Chase, originally published in the early 1980s, is literally the story about a young man (who is a partner at an ad agency and PR firm) and his girlfriend’s (a girl with the most sensual ears) quest to find a sheep – not just any sheep, but a sheep with a star on its back; a sheep that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist in Japan, where all sheep breeds have always been monitored and documented closely. You could say that their search is a metaphorical wild goose chase, but….

So, what’s special about the sheep with the star on its back? Well, he’s this omnipotent super-intelligent power, that takes over human beings, and makes them immense despite their innate mediocrity. However, when the sheep’s finished using one person, it leaves the body, in search for its next target, leaving the previous inhabitant sheepless.

In the story, the sheep had inhabited inside the right-wing Boss, a character who sat at top of the Tokyo food chain. Boss was mediocre; there was nothing special about him, until the sheep took over, and made him the single power that controlled almost all the advertising, stock markets and even information services in Tokyo. In 1936, Boss had been diagnosed with a fairly large brain tumour, which hadn’t killed him – the miracle lay in him still being alive! Now, sheepless, the boss is at the brink of death, and his right-hand man manages to corner the book’s narrator to search for the sheep, so that the Boss can be effectively replaced at the top, and the network built over the years will not disintegrate into nothing. The narrator does attempt putting a feeble fight, when he’s cornered, but, the rest, as they say, is history.

Nor do you know where you stand. Now listen, I thought it over last night. And it struck me. What have I got to feel threatened about? Next to nothing. I broke up with my wife, I plan to quit my job today, my apartment is rented, and I have no furnishings worth worrying about. By way of holdings, I’ve got maybe two million yen in savings, a used car, and a cat who’s getting on in years. My clothes are all out of fashion, and my records are ancient. I’ve made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent. I’m not so young anymore, and I’m always saying dumb things that I later regret. In a word, to borrow your turn of phrase, I am an utterly mediocre person. What have I got to lose? If you can think of anything, clue me in, why don’t you?

And yes, that’s the narrator for you! You might have noticed I haven’t used any names – just references – and that’s because Murakami himself doesn’t use any names in the books.

The book is a timeless universal one, where the narrator could have as easily been running an ad agency in the States, as in London, as in… well, Tokyo! Quoting Murakami:

There’s not a branch of publishing or broadcasting that doesn’t depend in some way on advertising. It’d be like an aquarium without water. Why, 95 percent of the information that reaches you has already been preselected and paid for.

The journey taken by the nameless narrator and his girlfriend takes them to places far and remote, where the population is in the thousands. They meet plenty of fascinating people referred to as the Sheep Professor – someone who was once inhabited by the sheep, but is now sheepless, and has devoted the rest of his life searching for the sheep; the Sheep Man – a person who is half-sheep, half-man; and Rat – an old friend of the narrator, who actually lands the narrator in his present situation.

While the narrator undergoes a physically challenging and mentally exhausting journey (peppered with sex, cigarettes, alcohol, and Sherlock Holmes), the reader embarks on a philosophical journey, in order to determine what the search is actually for. What does the sheep symbolise? Totalitarian power? The devil? And, what is the sheep searching for, that makes him constantly discard people and occupy others? Sufficient weakness to takeover, and turn the victim’s weaknesses into a thing of the past? And, what will the outcome of this search be? Will sheep end up ruling the world, by occupying people, through their supreme intelligence?

Murakami’s casual style of writing, filled with modern day references and thought-provoking allegories makes for a good read. Add to that the surrealism, the randomness, and the incredibly fascinating characters, and the good read becomes and extremely captivating one.

Comments

28 Responses to “Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase”

  1. Michelle
    January 15th, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    Ah! I SO have to read this one.

    It’s always interesting to read Murakami, isn’t it? His books more often than not (in fact, I don’t remember a time when he didn’t!) provide more questions than answers. In fact, sometimes I’m not so sure he’s all too keen with giving us any answers at all!

    I wonder why he chose to use the sheep though. Would there be a real difference if he had decided to use, say, a rabbit?

  2. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    January 15th, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    I loved this book, right up until the end. I thought the last few pages (chapters?) really let down what was a fantastic book. It just seemed to deflate, instead of coming to a good end.

    I haven’t read the sequel Dance, Dance yet, so perhaps all will be explained a bit more in that? Or knowing Murakami it will all just get weirder!

  3. uncertainprinciples
    January 15th, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    I still have a couple of questions after finishing this book, and I don’t really have any answers. Am just attributing it to the surrealism of Murakami!

    Well, he did go into detail about sheep rearing and breeding in Japan, and how it was government-regulated, so, maybe rabbits wouldn’t have worked in the historical sense. At “present”, i..e when the book takes place, the sheep in Japan are relatively small in number, so, it’s probably easier to find the one with the star on its back?!

  4. uncertainprinciples
    January 15th, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    I actually did enjoy the ending, bizarre as it was. I did puzzle over the significance of the first chapter for the longest time though, and wonder if you have any ideas?

    Apparently, there’s a prequel (or two) to this as well, but, they haven’t been translated as Murakami reckoned they were too weak. I’ll try reading Dance, Dance, Dance soon, but, I really should up Kafka on the Shore and Wind Up Bird Chronicle on my TBR.

  5. Tony
    January 16th, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    I have read (and posted on) all four of the books involving the main character, and it does make sense to read ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball, 1973′ first. I won’t bore you with the details (I’ve said it all before), but please stop by my blog and click on ‘The Trilogy of the Rat’ tag for all reviews and information about these books :)

  6. Pam
    January 16th, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I love love LOVE Murakami. I see you’ve read ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ which is great as after reading a few of his books I found myself wanting to know more about him. Jay Ruben translates a lot of Murakami’s books into English and he’s written a book on him called ‘Haruki Murakami and the music of words’ which you might enjoy too…

  7. uncertainprinciples
    January 16th, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    I just checked Pinball, 1973 on Amazon and couldn’t find a copy on the UK website. The US website has copies ranging from USD 400 – 1000. I might have to pass on it for the time-being…

    Thanks for all “four” reviews of the “trilogy” – I’ll keep an eye out for them… not feeling lucky though!

  8. uncertainprinciples
    January 16th, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    Hello fellow Murakami lover :))

    I loved the memoir on running, as it gave an insight into Murakami. I’ve not heard of the book, but will add it to my wishlist. No book buying for me at the moment… Thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Claire (Paperback_Reader)
    January 16th, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    I looked for this in Fopp today after reading your review but they didn’t have it (they are the best non-online shop for Murakami prices, I’ve found). I’m probably best to read those unread on the shelf first, however, and fully intend to read Kafka on the Shore next.

  10. uncertainprinciples
    January 16th, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    Never been to a Fopp. In fact, hadn’t even heard of it – just googled it right now.

    I’ll probably read Kafka On The Shore next. It’s the first Murakami I had on my shelf, and I’ve read three ahead of it. Must change that!

  11. Claire (Paperback_Reader)
    January 16th, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    Fopp is a Glasgow music-store chain but there’s one on Shaftesbury Avenue. They went into administration last year but were “saved” by HMV who closed all but three stores (there were only about six to begin with, to be fair) and now there isn’t much of a difference between their prices. The book selection is far better in Glasgow; when I was home for Christmas I noticed great deals on JM Coetzee and Anthony Bourdain and knew they had always been good for Murakami books, hence my visit today, but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any of the first two nor any of the Murakami I wanted.

  12. uncertainprinciples
    January 16th, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    @Claire : Ah, okay – thanks. Wiki told me there’s one in Covent Garden (that’s the one you’re talking about, I presume?). Pity you didn’t find the books/authors you were looking for, though. I always hate it when that happens.

  13. Tony
    January 17th, 2010 @ 3:34 am

    Re: ‘Pinball, 1973′, try e-Bay! My recent post explains why…

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com/2010/01/pinball-1973-update.html

  14. uncertainprinciples
    January 17th, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    Ah sweet, thanks for letting me know. Time to start scouring ebay!

  15. Sarah
    January 17th, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    I really enjoyed Norwegian Wood, but, as my only Murakami to date, I do feel, in retrospect, as if I were cheated of his trademark craziness. I have so got to read this book. Sheep! I love it.

    (And I want that cover!)

  16. Bellezza
    January 17th, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    Oh, I love Murakami so much, and I loved reading your review. His books can be confusing, and I wonder how nameless characters will effect me in reading it, but confusion and surrealism and elements of magical fantasy will never keep me away from him. I plan on reading this very soon.

  17. uncertainprinciples
    January 18th, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    Norwegian Wood was my first Murakami as well, and I absolutely loved it. It, however, wasn’t even half as outlandish as this one. Hope you enjoy the book, and am looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Maybe take Tony’s suggestion, and do the trilogy in order? :)

    PS : this side of the pond, this is the cover, so, you should be able to find it!

  18. uncertainprinciples
    January 18th, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    Surprisingly, I only noticed that the characters were nameless well into the book, when the protagonist referred to his girlfriend as “My girlfriend” instead of by her name. If not for that, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

    Hope you enjoy it, and can’t wait to see your thoughts on it. The confusion, surrealism and magical fantasy is what makes his books amazing and very enjoyable! (My opinion anyway).

  19. Kayleigh
    January 18th, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    This sounds really interesting! I’m not sure if the nameless characters would bother me or not – I picked up Wolf Hall the other day in the bookstore and read the first few pages, and it really bothered me that Mantel only uses personal pronoun ‘he’ to refer to her main character (as well as any other male characters present). It got really confusing and I didn’t buy it. It must be good if it won the Booker though…

  20. Marie
    January 21st, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    I’ve never read Murakmai but I keep meaning to. sounds terrific. I think I could get used to the no-name thing if the author does a good enough job of distinguishing the characters.

  21. Nymeth
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    I love that about Murakami too – you never know what you’re going to get. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on the list.

  22. Claire (Paperback_Reader)
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    Murakami is like a box of chocolates ;).

  23. uncertainprinciples
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    My momma never said that :)

  24. uncertainprinciples
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    This book is written in first person -think that helps a fair bit if the characters remain nameless. Wolf Hall is on my wishlist, but, don’t see myself getting ’round to reading it anytime soon.

    While the Booker might be my favourite literary prize, I’ve read a couple of Booker winners which were appallingly bad (my opinion)! Don’t know what the judges saw in those books, so, I might question the Booker ever-so-often :)

  25. uncertainprinciples
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I hope you do – most people rate Kafka On The Shore and Wind Up Bird Chronicle highly. I haven’t read either of those, but have enjoyed the couple I’ve read.

  26. uncertainprinciples
    January 23rd, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Cool – would love to see your thoughts on it, if and when you get ’round to reading it.

  27. brooks
    January 25th, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

    There’s a PDF of Pinball, 1973 here: http://bit.ly/6xEVQC

    There hasn’t been a US printing, but if you search ebay you can find the translations published by the Kodansha English Library. I got Hear the Wind Sing from ebay – you can see some of my pictures of it here: http://bit.ly/83h0jm

  28. Parrish
    August 6th, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

    I loved this book, have you read – Underground, Tokyo gas attack & the Japanese psyche. Its a really fascinating book by Mrakami.

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