Saturday 7 November 2009

80 - 'A Wild Sheep Chase' by Haruki Murakami

So now we come to Murakami's first 'real' book, his first real novel, and the first one available in English without resorting to Amazon and internet searches for pirated PDFs. 'A Wild Sheep Chase' is the third book in 'The Trilogy of the Rat' and marks the first time that Murakami painted his views, themes and slightly bizarre imagination on a wider canvas. The first time I read this book, I think I must have been suffering from Murakami overload as I remember the story dragging a little. On a second reading, this was a superb story.

Our old nameless friend (whom, as regular readers will know, I decided to nickname 'Toru' - for the sake of convenience...) is now approaching thirty and is still working with his friend in their company, which has branched out from translation into advertising. In the five years which have elapsed since 'Pinball, 1973', Toru has married (possibly the secretary introduced in the previous book) and recently divorced, leaving him at a crossroads in his life. His good friend The Rat has recently made contact by letter for the first time since leaving their hometown five years ago and has sent Toru, amongst other things, a picture of a sheep farm, asking him to use it at some point. And then, one day, things take a turn for the... well, the only word for it would be weird.

Without giving too much away, the rest of the book involves a girl with the most beautiful ears in the world, a henchman of one of the most successful businessmen (and exerters of political influence) in the country, a strange hotel (where sheep are the main topic of discussion) and the enigmatic Sheepman (whotalkslikethisfornoapparentreasonthaticanthinkof). And that's without mentioning the sheep who may be looking to control the world...

It sounds crazy, and it quite possibly is, but the whole scenario is grounded by the everyman central character arbitrarily known as Toru. As a reader, we experience the events of the novel, the mundane and the extraordinary, through the eyes of an average Japanese man, disillusioned by life and the modern world. While the things that happen to him seem incredible, the reality is that, presented in the way they are, any of us would probably approach them in the same way.

Toru, in effect, has nothing to lose. As he says, once he makes the decision to quit his company, he has nothing to hold him down: no wife, no job, no hometown. His decision to go on, what is literally, a wild-sheep chase, is unsurprising given his situation in life and could even be a very attractive proposition for those of us who have left the globetrotting days of our twenties behind us. This quest for the sheep with the star on its back is also a search for a way to return to the carefree days of his youth, an attempt (an excuse even) to find The Rat again and go back to the good old days where the two of them sat for nights at a time at the counter of J's bar, talking about nothing and drinking way too much.

The search for the sheep is also a reaction against the modern world and its obsession with consumerism. Since taking on the added work in advertising, Toru has felt unhappy, and his partner has started drinking too much. The world has moved on from the simpler times of Toru's childhood (indeed, in his hometown, even the beach has moved on as the town has reclaimed land from the sea!), leaving him feeling at odds with the world he is now living in. Several scenes in the book, including his musical tastes, show that Toru has a strong sense of nostalgia and struggles to adapt to a modern, commercial environment.

One example of this is the way he interacts with the smooth-talking, highly-educated, well-dressed sidekick of the big boss. This is the classic encounter of capitalist success versus suburban mediocrity (and any casual Murakami fan will know which one the great man prefers...). The man in the suit represents everything which is bad with capitalism, everything which renders the common man paralysed in his dealings and comfortably numb in his everyday life. By standing up to him and taking him on, even at the expense of his livelihood, Toru represents all of us in our struggles to be more than just a statistic contributing to GDP (especially poignant to many readers and bloggers who are more concerned about quality of life than quality of furniture).

And the sheep (yes, there is a sheep)? Don't quote me on this, but I feel the sheep represents ambition and a drive to be as successful (as opposed to happy) as one can be. I'm not going to expand on this (I don't want to spoil the book for you); I just think that the sheep represents the driving force behind the ideology which Toru and The Rat are obviously so uncomfortable with.

But, of course, there is no Toru; this is just a name I chose (not entirely randomly) to represent a character whose name we never learn. This trick of generalising his characters, either by a lack of names or by spelling their names in the katakana syllabary (usually reserved for foreign loanwords), is a deliberate attempt on Murakami's part to make his 'heroes' as universal as possible. Our main man makes this quite clear himself in 'A Wild Sheep Chase': in a conversation with his girlfriend, he claims not to really need names - he, you, they, are all you really need. Before you scoff - how often do you actually use your partner's name (at least in their presence)...

'The Trilogy of the Rat' technically ends with this book (which, in case you hadn't realised, I now think is brilliant), but Murakami obviously wasn't quite finished with his first group of characters. Our friend returns one more time in 'Dance, Dance, Dance', a novel which I enjoyed immensely the first time I read it and one which I am planning to read before the end of the year. So here's an idea: why don't you come back in a month or so, and I'll tell you all about it? Agreed? See you then...