Japanese Literature Challenge: Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

I was utterly entranced by my first two Haruki Murakami novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore; both are so richly layered, dreamlike and bizarre. For Japanese Literature Challenge 13, run by Meredith of Dolce Belezza, I decided to pick up another of his books. First I tried Norwegian Wood, but, ironically, it was so normal (from the little I read, a standard, nostalgic coming-of-age novel set on a college campus) that I felt disoriented and set it down after 20 pages – I’ll keep it on the shelf for some other time. Instead I read A Wild Sheep Chase, a fairly short one for Murakami at just under 300 pages.

I loved the zany premise: the unnamed narrator, who works for a small advertising firm, gets a threatening visit one day. A PR bulletin his company created happens to feature a photo his friend The Rat sent him of a traditional Hokkaido landscape with sheep, among which is visible one particular sheep – “the third sheep from the right in the front row” – with a distinctive brown star-shaped birthmark. “The Boss” and his emissary give the narrator an ultimatum: he has two months to find this sheep, or he’ll be driven out of business.

So, along with his girlfriend, who has psychic powers and unbelievably seductive ears, he sets off by train in search of typical mountains-and-fields scenery. She chooses, seemingly at random, a hotel that turns out to be the former headquarters of the Hokkaido Ovine Association; its owner’s father, who lives like a hermit upstairs, is the Sheep Professor. Not just an expert on sheep, he believes he was at one time possessed by the star-marked sheep.

As the narrator makes his way to The Rat’s mountain hideaway, an hour and a half from the nearest town, he’s moving further from rational explanations and deeper into solitude and communion with ghosts. There’s some trademark Murakami strangeness, but the book is too short to give free rein to the magic realist plot, and I felt like there were too many loose ends after his return from The Rat’s, especially around his girlfriend’s disappearance.

Also, after just three and a bit of his novels (I DNFed Killing Commendatore in 2018), I’m already noticing a lazy reliance on the same setup: a directionless thirtysomething man whose marriage has recently fallen apart starts a new and pretty peculiar life. There are also a couple of specific failings that I’m noticing for the second or third time now: a slow, pointless start (the first 40 pages here could easily be shaved off) and slight misogyny: “Women with their clothes off have a frightening similarity. Always throws me for a loop.”

I appreciate the imagination that went into this, and enjoyed some specific witty metaphors (“the effect was unpalatable. Like serving sherbet and broccoli on the same silver platter” and “The elevator shook like a large dog with lung disease”) and observant lines (“Age certainly hasn’t conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant”), but overall the novel was a letdown. Can anyone recommend me another surefire Murakami?

My rating:

 

Note: This was Murakami’s first novel to be translated into English, in 1989. I had no idea that it’s actually the third book out of four in a series called “The Rat.”

20 responses

  1. James Ashley Shea | Reply

    You will love — adore — Murakami’s Absolutely on Music: Conversations

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    1. Sadly, I don’t think I have enough interest in classical and/or jazz music to pick that one up, though I am interested in others of his nonfiction works (on running and Japanese events, for instance).

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  2. I loved Norwegian Wood, but it is the only Murakami I’ve read, so I feel like I haven’t had the full wacky experience yet!

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    1. It felt so different to what I’d come to expect from him; I don’t know if I’ll be able to read it without preconceptions.

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  3. I have not read this book but I think your assessment is very fair and as I started reading your review I realised this book will also not be for me. I also DNFed Killing Commendatore (it puzzles me how anyone can read it to the end). I know it is a very long book, but I think you may enjoy 1Q84? I have very high expectations regarding it.

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    1. Someone on Twitter just recommended 1Q84 as well! I do think it will be more to my taste based on what I’ve enjoyed from Murakami before.

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  4. I loved this one, my first Murakami, decades ago now. How about 1Q84? Shades of Alice in Wonderland

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    1. You were probably among his early English-language fans! Yes, I think 1Q84 looks like one for me. Alas that I can’t access my library’s copy for at least the next 10 weeks, but once everything does reopen I will make that my next book from him.

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      1. It featured on A Good Read, still going strong on Radio 4 when I was a bookseller. Hope you enjoy

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      2. Oops! I meant to say I hope you enjoy 1Q84. The three volumes together seem vast but I practically inhaled it.

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    2. I saw that the combined volume is 1300+ pages, which made me feel a bit faint. But if I can get into it like I did with Wind-Up Bird, I know those hundreds of pages will fly past.

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  5. I suppose I should try and open my mind to this challenge … but I find Murakami just … unreadable.

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    1. If he doesn’t appeal then you certainly don’t have to read anything by him. Blog friend Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home) has a good description of much modern Japanese literature: “flat and floaty feeling.” My knowledge of Japanese stuff, especially the classics, is poor, so I wouldn’t know what else to recommend.

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      1. I’ll get my that-part-of-the-world stuff from Korea then. Plenty of interesting books to go at!

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  6. The running one! I have read that three times. I did read Norwegian Wood in 2008, though I have little memory of it and wrote a less than full review https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2008/06/22/haruki-murakami-norweigan-wood/

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    1. Yes, even though I’m not a runner, I’m interested in his memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My first Murakami was Kafka on the Shore, read it years ago and I loved it. I actually agree with your review though about the setup with several novels- I think that is why some books I love and others by him not as much. Great review!

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    1. I read that one a couple of years ago and thought it was terrific. I wonder if at some point I’ll have to stop reading him because I find his setups too samey? Before then I hope to try the very best of his novels.

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  8. I really enjoyed 1Q84, but it was my first Murakami and after reading Colorless Tsukuru, I couldn’t bring myself to start one because of the flaws you mentioned – he seems kind of misogynistic and his books are basically all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting one for you to start with — it’s so long! I think it’s got the ‘classic’ Murakami themes I will enjoy. I can’t see myself ever reading all of his books, though.

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