Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

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A girl with magical ears. An ovine-centered photo. A Sheep Professor. A Rat gone missing. A dying corporate giant who may or may not rule the world.

And of course, at the center of it all: a mark shaped like a star on a seemingly innocent sheep.

What begins as a crippling divorce ends in uncovering a diabolical plan to plunge the world in anarchy. And when that happens, you can be sure that it’s one heck of a story. But then again, that’s how all Haruki Murakami stories are.

With just the right blend of the mundane and the surreal, A Wild Sheep Chase takes readers on an epic journey that will haunt you long after turning the last page. Part mystery, part love story, part postmodern magic realism, the book comes third in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat”, and is the author’s first novel published in the United States. This book introduced Murakami to American audiences, and he has been larger than life ever since. It’s not necessarily required to read all three books in the trilogy (with Hear The Wind Sing being the first and Pinball, 1973 as the second—out now in local bookstores, by the way, so watch out for my review of those two here soon!) to fully understand A Wild Sheep Chase, but then again, the story is already perplexing as it is. In true Murakami fashion, the book is anything but straightforward, and herein lies the beauty of this masterpiece—that it can be interpreted in more ways than one, each depending on the reader.

So here’s how the story goes. The unnamed protagonist, recently divorced and currently dating an unattractive girl with highly attractive ears, receives a request from his long-lost friend, The Rat. The odd request is for him to publish a photo of a flock of sheep in a brochure of the advertising company that he co-owns. The moment he does so, he gets an unexpected visit from a Strange Man in a suit and tie, working for someone named the Boss, and this is his ultimatum: find the elusive sheep with the star-shaped mark in the photo, or suffer the dire consequences. Cue ominous music here.

Star-marked sheep. Thirty days. Find or die. Bizarre and baffling as it may seem, the request sounds simple enough. But when you throw in cryptic letters, a man in sheep clothing, and the protagonist’s matter-of-fact poker face in practically everything he does, Murakami proves that once again in any novel of his, things just aren’t quite what they seem.

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Since the worldwide release of the book, a number of discussions were launched about the underlying motifs in the novel, with symbolisms ranging from parodies of the corporate bureaucracy to the limitless extent of human free will. A lot can even be said about how “very probably the sheep found its way into the Boss. That would have been in 1936. And for the next forty years or so, the sheep remained lodged in the Boss. There inside, it must have found a pasture, a birch forest. Like the one in that photograph. What think you?” But without the semi-pretentious interpretations and existential themes, A Wild Sheep Chase is, at its very core, a rousing good story. There’s just so much to enjoy about the curious adventure our monotonous protagonist embarks on, and the peculiar but incredibly interesting characters he meets are original and unforgettable, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. Add that to the poignant poetry of words that Murakami never fails to employ with his vivid imagery, and you’ve got a book that will definitely go into your favorite shelf.

“A month had passed since I agreed to the divorce and she moved out,” Murakami writes about his protagonist’s divorce. “A non-month. Unfocused and unfelt, a lukewarm protoplasm of a month.” Even this brief description of something as commonplace as divorce at the beginning of the novel strikes deep and cuts right into the heart, leaving it a raw and open wound for all the readers to see. “From the photo albums, every single print of her had been peeled away. Shots of the both of us together had been cut, the parts with her neatly trimmed away, leaving my image behind. Photos of me alone or of mountains and rivers and deer and cats were left intact. Three albums rendered into a revised past. It was as if I’d been alone at birth, alone all my days, and would continue alone. A slip! She could have at least left a slip!”

Of course, it is still a hit-or-miss for non-Murakami fans.  As the title suggests, it’s a challenge to follow the intricate plot and the subtle way the characters reveal their thoughts and intentions. But what these new readers might discover is that the novel takes life at its most banal form and enchants it with glimpses of the fantastic, and that’s what makes every Murakami novel so satisfying.

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In the end, even the protagonist’s passive attitude of taking a step back from all the action couldn’t save him from being drawn into the crazy hunt for a megalomaniac sheep. With the help of his girlfriend who has a questionable job (“She was 21, with an attractive slender body and a pair of the most bewitching, perfectly formed ears. She was a part-time proofreader for a small publishing house, a commercial model specializing in ear shots and a call girl in a discreet intimate-friends-only club. Which of the three she considered her main occupation, I had no idea. Neither did she.”) and a man known as the Sheep Professor, our unnamed narrator greets the climax of the story with a good cry.

It all may have started with an unhealthy ovine obsession, but there is so much more to the world than sheep, like “summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas”. And after all has been said and done, perhaps readers—just like the narrator—can also come to the conclusion that life is at its fullest when having a refreshing beer with a friend.

A wild sheep chase indeed.

You can grab a copy of Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece in local bookstores everywhere, and once you do, leave us your thoughts and comments below to let us know just what you think about all these crazy sheep!

*This article was first seen on The Philippine Online Chronicles HERE.

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