A Wild Sheep Chase

download (1)Haruki Murakami, 1982
Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum, 1989

Looking for a light, fast-paced read (that wasn’t total garbage) I turned to Murakami and found exactly what I was looking for. A Wild Sheep Chase was my second work by the Japanese surrealist and I couldn’t help but notice that the plot progression echos some notable similarities to my first exposure to the author in his work, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. However, the similarities are only vague echoes of the author’s style that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book.

In both Sheep Chase and Wonderland a hard-drinking unnamed protagonist finds himself caught up in an unlikely detective escapade choreographed by an underground and powerful mafia-like organization. The detective pursuits cause the unnamed protagonist to cast aside his workaday life as he gets caught up in an increasingly strange and surreal chain of events. Also of note in both books is that the unnamed protagonist is involved with an unnamed woman of considerable youth and beauty. For all I know, this basic plot structure may be the blueprint formula for all of Murakami’s book, but that is of no concern, because Murakami writes with imagination that is a pleasure to read.

Despite the formulaic similarities, A Wild Sheep Chase is a stand-alone book. The basic story is as follows: the book opens with an unexplained funeral of a woman the protagonist knew eight years prior. Following the funeral, the protagonist reads some letters from an old friend of his that left Tokyo – coincidentally also eight years prior – to escape society and find himself. The friend mails the protagonist a picture of a flock of sheep and the protagonist uses the picture in an advertisement for his business. Shortly after he posts the photo he learns that the photo included a unique sheep with a star on its backside. After he is interrogated and threatened by a powerful businessman, he finds himself on an unlikely quest to find the very same particular sheep in cold climate of northern Hokkaido. In his quest he meets an obsessed professor (a similar plot point also occurs in Hardboiled) who believes that this particular sheep is an eternal spiritual force intent on world domination or something of that nature.

Bizarre and unbelievable? Part of the fun is that the protagonist hardly believes any of it himself and he spends most of his time drinking, eating, having intercourse with a woman with who he is obsessed with her ears. Oh, yeah, there is plenty of belching and farting too. With all that eating and drinking, at least Murakami is true to the bodily functions. There is a good amount of lighthearted slapstick included to keep the bizarre detective story enjoyable and grounded in a surreal semblance of reality.

The sheep shape ensues, and without giving away all that occurs, it is important to note that the reader quickly forgets that this wild sheep chase all began with a funeral that was somehow tied to friendships from eight years prior. The protagonist is twenty-nine and overly conscious of the maturity expected of him in his impeding third decade. The reflection to the past and the sheep chase that follows may really be a wild metaphor for Murakami’s version of an anti-coming-of-age story in which the protagonist choses to follow his old friend’s footsteps by eschewing the workaday business world in order to better find himself.

Now, my interpretation of the plot’s meaning may be a wild sheep chase in itself. There is plenty more to think about in this work, with a rich reference into the 20th century industrial militarization of Japan. In his investigation for the sheep, the protagonist dives deep into the history of Japan’s relationship with both Russia and China and even proposes that the Japan’s once booming and now declining sheep industry was a military incentive to produce wool for use in the colder Russian and Chinese climates during the wars of the early part of the 20th century. Now, what that means for the plot and the sheep chase, I can’t quite wrap my brain around. Perhaps the novel stands for Japan’s wild pursuit for conquest and ultimate failure, however I think I like the simpler interpretation that this is a novel about letting go responsibility and getting in touch with the self.

A light, fast-paced read that presents multiple interpretations is definitely an enjoyable read, and lends itself towards being a wild chase in of itself.

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About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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