Monday, June 28, 2010


Imagine a world kinda like Alice in Wonderland, where a seemingly innocent choice (say, following a rabbit down a hole) leads you into a very bizarre and chaotic world, where things are not what they seem and events do not make much sense, yet follow a sort of twisted, otherworldly logic.

That sums up much of the writing style of famed Japanese author, 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki), but only in the barest sense. Murakami's writing never seems to get old for me. Steeped in the mysteries and complexities of Japanese culture, myth, and symbolism, unpacking one of his novels can be both fascinatingly rewarding and mindbogglingly challenging.

Published in 1982 as a sequel to 1973年のピンボール (Pinball, 1973), 羊をめぐる冒険 (A Wild Sheep Chase) is the third and final installment of his Trilogy of the Rat. Since I didn't read the previous two works, I know I am missing out on something, here. Nevertheless, A Wild Sheep Chase, like all of Murakami's novels, stands on its own.

The book opens with a funeral, or rather, the reminiscence of a funeral by the main character. When the flashback ceases, the nameless protagonist is finalizing the divorce from his wife. The protagonist is as bland as his namelessness would suggest, except for his acerbic wit and his deliberate desire to lead a boring, dull, uneventful life. In almost every way, he represents the average, cog-in-the-machine, working-stiff salaryman of Japanese society, except for his cynicism. It is this cynicism which evokes Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and we can very nearly see Murakami's protagonist played by Humphrey Bogart in our minds (despite the fact that the novel takes place in early 1980s Japan).

Murakami fetishizes names in many of his books, and it is incredible that this entire novel is comprised of nameless characters. They are given descriptive epithets ("my girlfriend," or "the chauffeur," or "the Rat") but the only character that is ever named is the very ancient and very decrepit cat that the protagonist owns, and he is given a name in a very peculiar conversation by a complete stranger. The discussion invokes such concepts of identity and individuality, and how a name defines a person.

And an astute reader, one who is paying attention, will see little red flags go up throughout the conversation, reminding him or her that none of the characters has actually been given any name. Not until this cat. And never again.

This is just one example of the complexity of Murakami's work. The story is a detective tale in which our nameless protagonist must scour all of Hokkaido to find a sheep that does not, indeed cannot, exist, or forfeit everything. Throughout the book, we see him return to his hometown only to find it is completely transformed, and where the seashore once stood, there is a landfill full of housing developments and nothing is as it had once been. The theme of loss is prevalent throughout the book, repeating itself over and over again. The nameless hero is free with nothing to lose, but that freedom is also a prison, because nothing really matters to him in the end. Loss is thus tinged with irony, because abandonment results in freedom, but the result is unfamiliarity. Change is liberating, but that liberation often results in being cast adrift in circumstances that are beyond our understanding.

There are two stories that Murakami writes. The first one is the surface story, in which all sorts of crazy things transpire, much like in a David Lynch film. It is about as surreal as Blue Velvet, but not as much as
ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), which is more comparable to Lost Highway. But beneath that surface story is a deeper one. This one is told entirely through symbols, and believe me, everything that Murakami weaves into this story has meaning. Murakami's penchant for realism, in which he describes cooking, drinking, music, and cigarettes, is tempered by the deep symbolic and metaphysical nature of his narratives. Cats feature prominently in his stories, so an astute reader should ask, "Why is this ancient, decrepit cat the only person in this entire story who receives a real, actual name?" Water also features prominently in East Asian symbolism and in Murakami's work, demanding the reader to pay attention to how the sea was pushed back by a landfill, which in turn was covered with residential development in the protagonist's hometown. The entire time you are reading this book, you should be asking yourself, "What is Murakami trying to say with this?"

There are a million possibilities. And our answers, as Americans, will undoubtedly be worlds different from Japanese readers. The cultural divide will give both the Japanese and American readers vastly different perspectives on such a deep and symbolically loaded work. And I think that is part of the magic and appeal of Murakami.

A Wild Sheep Chase showcases the author's love for (and knowledge of) Western popular fiction of the 20th century. Alfred Birnbaum's translation more than adequately conveys the cynicism and ambivalence that masks the main character's deep sense of loneliness. Though I've not read the original Japanese myself (my reading skill is not quite up to snuff), I've read that Murakami's writing style is so heavily influenced by American prose fiction (especially of the hardboiled detective genre) that it is easily rendered into English. The tone of the book, being a sort of metaphysical and symbolic detective-story, and the dry wit of the main character, display the author's love for irreverent American writing.

When it comes to storytelling, Murakami is quite adept. The short, quickly-read chapters speedily sweep the reader along, while constantly layering on symbolism that can be either overlooked or deeply contemplated without ruining the experience. Some have criticized his characters as bland cardboard cut-outs, but I believe that is a result of a deep misunderstanding of Murakami's purpose. While some have called A Wild Sheep Chase a fable or a myth, I would never regard it as such. Murakami uses the surreal to underscore what is wrong with reality. He is very much the critic, and everything he puts in his books is a comment on Japanese society and culture. The namelessness and blandness of many of the characters is part-and-parcel with Murakami's critique on Japanese uniformity and work-a-day lifestyle. Indeed, the protagonist's life prior to the beginning of his adventure is very much a prison--he goes to work, comes home, eats, sleeps, and repeats the process, simply passing time. The pointlessness of his existence demands the reader to ask if the man is simply waiting for death. Instead, Murakami delivers a Campbellian call to adventure, and the hero leaves to discover just how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

I don't want to discuss the novel in any greater detail, seeing as I've already spoiled a few surprises. As one of Murakami's earliest works (originally published in 1982, and his third novel), it lacks the refinement of
海辺のカフカ (Kafka on the Shore) and the complexity and power of ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). But it is interesting to catch a glimpse of the author's early work, and by comparing it to his later writings, it is easy to see how he has grown and perfected his ability to create a story and characters, as well as his ability to deepen and broaden his rabbit-holes. This is probably a good introductory novel to Murakami's style. The symbolism isn't laid on as thick, and is not as convoluted and overwhelmingly complex as Kafka or Wind-Up Bird. The surreality of events won't leave the uninitiated reader confused, only curious. Thus, I would probably recommend this novel, alongside ノルウェイの森 (Norwegian Wood) to the novice Murakami-reader.

羊をめぐる冒険 (A Wild Sheep Chase) by 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki)
Style: B+
Substance: B+
Overall: B+

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