A Surrealist Personal Growth

Through the years, Japanese master wordsmith Haruki Murakami has proven to many a reader that writing is not confined to a straightforward formula or a single convention. His refusal to be corralled into a particular genre or be defined by a single writing style has brought about scintillating and riveting tales like Kafka on the Shore,, Sputnik Sweetheart and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. He was never daunted by conventions. He brews his own brand of coffee, redefining what storytelling is, eventually giving a brand new definition to what reading experience is.

However, it wasn’t always an easy task for the world-renowned storyteller. It took him his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase to finally be recognized by an international audience thirsty for tales that make them think out-of-the box. A Wild Sheep Chase, published in Japanese in 1982 and in English in 1989, follows the story of an unnamed advertising executive who just got divorced from his wife.The unnamed primary character received a postcard from his long-lost friend “Rat”. He nonchalantly used the picture on the postcard for an advertisement.

Little did he know that this harmless act would set into motion a series of events that would set his domesticated life tail-spinning. Immediately after the publication of the advertisement, he received a call from a mysterious man claiming to be the representative of a powerful man, referred to as “The Boss”,an elite figure in Japan’s political and economic scene. The advertising executive was informed that a strange sheep with a star-shaped birthmark was captured in the picture he published. The mutant sheep holds magical powers and the advertising executive must find the sheep, lest he risk losing his life, his career and everything he values.

“What’s done is done, what’s yet to be is clearly yet to be, and so in other words, sandwiched as we are between the “everything” that is behind us and the “zero” beyond us, ours is an ephemeral existence in which there is no coincidence nor possibility.” ~ Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

In true genre-bending fashion, Murakami built a narrative that deviates from the literary praxis. A Wild Sheep Chase is the mash up of diverse elements such as detective fiction, magical surrealism, and adventure. There is the integration of the absurd bordering on the surreal. It can be interpreted as the simple story of a man and his search for a sheep. It can also be transcribed as narrative of a man bereft of emotions as he plunges into an adventure in search of a mutant sheep with magical powers.

Murakami, being Murakami, didn’t contain his narrative into one box nor did he let it be examined under a solitary lens. The narrative started normally, in a realistic mode. Murakami introduces an ordinary man who is struggling to recover from the emotional scars left behind by a failed marriage and who is constantly worrying about his business partner’s excessive drinking. The slow pivot towards the strange begun when he takes in a new girlfriend who he tracked down after seeing an alluring picture of her ear. It foreshadowed the same manner in which he was tracked down by The Boss.

Thus commences what would turn out to be an adventure surrounding a sheep; the Japanese title, Hitsuji o meguru bōken literally translates An Adventure Surrounding Sheep. On the surface, the narrative takes the form of a physical adventure but on deeper rumination, the story involves a journey of emotional growth. Before jumping in haste to hunt for the mythical sheep, the unnamed narrator took an insouciant view of his life and of the things he have. He had the advantages afforded to him by a modest middle class success yet he takes them for granted. An excellent example is his ex-wife.

Under the guise of an adventure and detective fiction is a journey of personal transformation and growth reminiscent of a coming-of-age novel. The protagonist’s emotional growth propelled the narrative forward. Murakami captured his transformation vividly, simultaneously underlining the importance of the process in obtaining full emotional growth. The protagonist’s escapade into the snow-capped mountains of Hokkaido led to encounters with unlikely characters who, in subtle ways, made him realize the most important things in life and what one must do to preserve them.

“Speaking frankly and speaking the truth are two different things entirely. Honesty is to truth as prow is to stern. Honesty appears first and truth appears last. The interval between varies in direct proportion to the size of ship. With anything of size, truth takes a long time in coming. Sometimes it only manifests itself posthumously. Therefore, should I impart you with no truth at this juncture, that is through no fault of mine. Nor yours.” ~ Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

On the backdrop of the grand narrative about the search for the meaning of life reverberates the theme of mediocrity. The protagonist was characterized to be unremarkable. His personality is in stark dichotomy to the people he encounters in his journey – the Ainu youth, The Boss, his girlfriend, and even the mythical sheep itself. He is a passive follower and not a proactive initiator. His life is characterized by his summation, “To a greater extent, everybody’s always being ordered and pushed around. There may bot be anything better we could hope for.” 

Allegories permeated all throughout the narrative. Most of the characters, including the protagonist himself, didn’t possess any formal names or they were simply referred to in nicknames like “Rat”, “The Boss”, “Sheep Professor” or “Sheep Man”. This is a subtle reference to the story’s universality. By leaving the main protagonist anonymous, Murakami is making his readers take on his persona; he could be any of us. His journey towards emotional growth and his search for the meaning of life are journeys we nonchalantly partake of everyday.

The biggest symbol, of course, is the mythical sheep. The sheep with the star-shaped birthmark is an allusion to various things. On a more profound scale, the sheep represents the meaning of life which the protagonist set upon to unravel. It haunts us, fills us with visions and dreams, captures our imaginations. In Japanese history, sheep is an allusion to modernization and westernization. Sheep, a new livestock imported abroad, has neither cultural nor historical attachment to Japan yet it ushered in changes. Through the lenses of the elite, the sheep represents the insatiable appetite for power and wealth or even the search for the fountain of youth. These are powerful things we seek for that, on the whole, can be inimical, leaving the ordinary man unsettled.

Different facets of Japanese history made a wide canvass for the narrative to be sewn in or to be painted on. Interwoven into the rich and colorful tapestry are references to cultural milestones, such as the allusions to western influences and the popular culture. The narrative is pervaded by philosophical crossroads. There are hints of existentialism, especially towards the end of the book. The protagonist grew perplexed of the events unfolding before him. He became unsure of who and why he really is.

“Of course, it goes without saying that everybody has his weaknesses. But real weakness is as rare as real strength. You don’t know the weakness that is ceaselessly dragging you under into darkness. You don’t know that such as thing exists in the world. Your generalities don’t cover everything you know.” ~ Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

The glue that bonded the novel’s various elements together is Murakami’s writing. His evocative prose made the plot move naturally along scene by scene. His beautiful language produced a great landscape rife with beautiful metaphors and descriptions whilst accentuating the story with the Murakami stereotypes. He has an exceptional ability of capturing the atmosphere of a place and of a particular time. Murakami has proven himself a master at capturing the banalities of everyday life. Punctuating the fantastical elements are elements of the ordinary, revealing a riveting and vibrant mix of the magical and the mundane. This would later on be one of the trademarks of a Murakami novel.

A Wild Sheep Chase is a complex narrative that integrates the real and the magical, a hallmark of Murakami’s oeuvre. Through the eyes of an unremarkable man nonchalantly moving about life, he managed to explore the grand narrative on the search for meaning and purpose. The enchanting narrative was painted on a vivid backdrop rich with metaphors.  A tenacious literary jetsetter, Murakami willingly defied norms and conventions, willfully shifting paradigms to concoct stories that tickles the imagination.

In a literary ensemble that is dominated by masterpieces like Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, or 1Q84, A Wild Sheep Chase is considered to be one of Murakami’s lesser works. A Wild Sheep Chase, however, is perhaps Murakami’s most pivotal work. Even though it was already his third novel, Murakami referred to it as his first novel, “the first book where I could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story.”1 And we all know what happened after. 

Ratings:

89%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Compared to some Haruki Murakami novels I have read, A Wild Sheep Chase looks more simpler. Strong magical surrealist elements still permeated throughout the narrative but it was bereft of the labyrinthine complexity that his succeeding works had. Written in a period he was still developing his own brand, A Wild Sheep Chase can easily be seen as an innovative story that, on the surface, looks quirky but possesses grander narratives about the search for the meaning of life and emotional growth and journey. I found the adventure part a little bland but as soon as the different allegories started to surface at the latter part of the narrative, I was in awe. Murakami has that inimitable brand of literature that always leave me in awe. He keeps me wanting to come back for more.

Book Specs

Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: April 2002
Number of Pages: 353
Genre: Magical Realism

Synopsis

An advertising executive receives a postcard from a friend and casually appropriates the image for an advertisement.. What he doesn’t realize is that included in the scene is a mutant sheep with a star on its back, and in using this photo he has unwittingly captured the attention of a man who offers a menacing ultimatum: find the sheep or face dire consequences. Thus begins a surreal and elaborate quest that takes readers from Tokyo to the remote mountains of northern Japan, where the unnamed protagonist has a surprising confrontation with his demons.

About the Author

To know more about Haruki Murakami, click here.

References:

1 Devereaux, Elizabeth (September 21, 1991). “PW Interviews: Haruki Murakami”. Publishers Weekly.