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NAX41412 -

Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase


Haruki Murakami seems like a regular guy. From the outside, he appears to be a model of discipline and restraint—regular and strenuous exercise, many hours in a workmanlike fashion spent at his desk writing or translating, a jazz-lover when not working, as well as a spell of some years teaching in America. But open one of his books and a very different person emerges; although one who appears at first to come from the modern, comfortable, globalised world Murakami inhabits.

He was born in 1949 in Kyoto, although much of his childhood was spent in Kobe. Both his parents were teachers of Japanese literature, but he found himself much more attracted to European and American art, especially the written word and music. At university in Waseda, he majored in cinema and theatre studies, and his love of jazz inspired his first profession—running a jazz bar called Peter Cat in Tokyo. Having decided initially that he did not have the necessary skills to write a novel, an epiphany of sorts at a baseball match changed his mind and his life. His first novels developed a cult following in Japan, but his growing audience ballooned in the mid-80s and saw Murakami’s elevation to something approaching pop-star status. His discomfort at this attention sent him travelling, and he would later spend some years in the United States at Princeton and Tufts universities. His relationship with Japan—always rather uneasy—changed somewhat after the Kobe earthquake and the underground poison attacks of 1995, when he felt himself drawn back to examine the nature of the people affected by the tragedies.

Now he lives in a suburb of Tokyo, an extremely successful writer, following a fairly set routine of work and exercise. But when he writes, he is unsure what is going to happen, and the stories follow a path he cannot predict. For all the conformity of the outside appearance, there are unpredictable forces at work inside. It is the apparent freedom to allow his imagination to take over, rather than follow a predetermined path, that gives so much of Murakami’s fiction its dreamlike quality. As he says: ‘I like stories of abnormal things happening to normal people’, and the Everyman nature of the narrators is a common feature of his novels. While we might at first feel at home with the central protagonist, it won’t be long before he is visited by events and characters so bizarre that they seem other-worldly. And yet, as in dreams, the appearance of these events or characters is never questioned by the modern, real, very much flesh-and-blood creations with whom we feel so at ease.

A Wild Sheep Chase begins like a conventional thriller, almost a parody of the American style, with a seemingly hardboiled narrator reporting dispassionately about himself and the death of an ex. But this narrator is Japanese, for a start; he is a recently divorced copywriter who arranges a date with someone because he has, essentially, fallen for her ears. After that, it begins to get very strange indeed, as Murakami allows his story to develop with that imaginative freedom. There is a sheep-crazed professor; a strange and powerful (though profoundly shady) organisation; a chance picture of great significance; a runaway friend; coincidences and sixth-sense; voices of the past—and a sheep-man. It is by no means without humour.

There is something slightly surreal about the place of the book in Murakami’s work. Technically, it is the third part of a trilogy, but Murakami felt uncomfortable about having the two earlier volumes translated, thinking they were ‘weak’, and happily A Wild Sheep Chase stands independent of its forebears. However, there is also a sequel (Dance, Dance, Dance), making Sheep Chase the third part of a tetralogy—but this fourth book is not seen as part of the sequence, making Sheep Chase a stand-alone third part of a four-part trilogy. Readers of Douglas Adams’ work might feel at home here. But the book was a turning-point for Murakami personally and artistically. In it, for the first time, he felt a joy at the feeling of telling a story and letting it flow from him, however strange and unreal it may be.

However, the surreality or absurdity of Murakami’s work is more than just dreaminess. There is a melancholia underpinning his narrators, as well as a pervading sense of loss or uncertainty. It may be this that makes Murakami’s work so popular throughout the West as well as in Japan; that and his unapologetic acceptance of global contemporary culture. These two elements combine to give his characters a voice that is as recognisable in London, Wellington, New York and Seoul as it is in Tokyo itself, and is one reason why his work seems at odds with the traditions of the Japanese literature that Murakami’s parents taught.

Although there are strong elements of myth and fairy-tale in his stories, something else that contributes to their broad appeal, there is also the potential for symbolism. Murakami himself is uncomfortable with that idea, thinking it rather limiting; but it need not be specific to be effective. What is the symbol of a giant in a panto other than something that needs to be conquered to allow people to live peacefully and happily? Similarly, while the sheep in A Wild Sheep Chase may not stand for anything in particular, the fact that it inspires philosophical discourses on the role of the individual in society, or the power of governments and the media, or the success of organisation versus chaos, means it is more than just a sheep, and therefore something the reader can chase in her or his own head.

Murakami rarely offers complete answers to any of the questions his books raise. Maybe that is what makes him so popular. Perhaps what his extraordinary number of readers want is someone who can express their sense of inexplicable alienation in a prosperous world; and if he can do it with a narrative that excites and intrigues, so much the better. Murakami draws from his own dream-world and internal life a place where others who share his uncertainties can feel at home.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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