A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami
When I first picked up this book on recommendation from a good friend, I didn’t know what to expect. With Murakami’s reputation, I was worried I would find some highly intellectual, remote and ethereal prose weighed with hyper-cultural, obtuse relevance. 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, in this book the journey was more important than 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. But even the deepest 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 man in the black suit”, etc. A few are known by nickname: J (a friend) and the Rat (the friend with the photograph). Interestingly enough, only the cat, Kipper, is assigned a name. We don’t even know the name of the main character. Yet, with Murakami’s sparse prose, we don’t need names; they would be somewhat superfluous and distracting.
This isolation from the characters does not feel cold; it’s more like a purity. Purity of story, of environment. The narrator 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 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, very entertaining.