Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Grand Sheep Chase

Haruki Murakami's first novel was "Hear the Wind Sing".  I haven't read it yet.  I'm wandering through his works rather than systematically pursuing them.  I have now wandered closer to his beginning than before with the completion of A Wild Sheep Chase.  (I had actually MEANT to pick up "A Wild Haruki Chase", but my library doesn't carry it, so I ended up with this instead.)

I find that early books, while rarely the best, are often the most interesting to a fan, because they provide insight into how the writer became the master.  Now, a few people seem to spring into the literary world fully realized; I think of James Joyce's "Dubliners", which would be a wonderful capstone to any literary career, but in his case merely ushered in the beginning.  On the other hand, there are writers who had to work hard and practice in order to become good.  I loved reading George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," not because it was better written than "1984" (it isn't), but because it showed a young man struggling to communicate his passionate political beliefs, worries about the state of the world, and otherwise building up the skills and clarity of mind that he would later unleash.  Or consider Kurt Vonnegut, possibly my favorite 20th century American novelist.  "Player Piano" is a fine book, but if it wasn't for the name on the cover, I wouldn't have thought it was a Vonnegut book; it is so conventional in voice, so different from the distinctive style he would later develop.  And even "Player Piano" only appeared after a decade of short stories that Vonnegut wrote for glossy magazines, each of which is interesting, none of which are worthy of being discussed in the same breath as "Cat's Cradle" or "Breakfast of Champions."

Murakami charts a middle course with this book.  It is recognizable as Murakami, but feels a little dialed-back.  He's more cautious about embracing absurdity, and seems apologetic about some of the tossed-off characters.  Still, you can see his impulses at work here... he still wants to achieve the same things as the later Murakami, he just has not completely worked out how yet.  And his protagonist is purely in keeping with the later books.  I think I was primed to look for this after hearing him speak, and was struck by how similar this book's male narrator is to the male narrator in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" and other favorite later books.

One potential impact of the more restrained style: this book might serve as a good introduction to Murakami without turning off too many people.  I feel like "Kafka on the Shore" sort of throws people into the deep end, where they either love it or reject it.  With "A Wild Sheep Chase," Murakami is more accommodating to readers who want a conventionally comprehensible plot with well defined characters and goals; at the same time, he allows a sense of play and ambiguity to creep in.  Whether you focus on the story or the atmosphere is entirely up to you.

His skills as a writer seem fully intact at this point, though it's hard to tell when reading through translation.  (This book predates his association with Jay Rubin, and I'm curious how many differences in writing that I attribute to his earlier period are really due to having a different person, y'know, actually writing the book.)  He has that wonderful sense of humor on display.  At one point, the main character muses over Dostoevsky and other Russian authors.  His mind wandering, he thinks something like, "The Russians have a knack for coming up with aphorisms.  Maybe that's what they do all winter."

Hm, I think I'm about to venture into the realm of


There's just a lot of really interesting stuff going on in here.  I really enjoyed a scene where the narrator meets The Boss's secretary, who is promising to help explain the first set of unusual actions which have taken place.  The secretary makes a metaphor: their exchange will be like a ship.  Honesty is at the front, and truth is in the back.  He will lead forward with honesty.  Truth will inevitably follow, and even though it depends on honesty, it is not the same thing.  I think I grasped this image, and like it a lot.  It says that words are not the same as comprehension.  You can listen to a person tell only the truth, and if you are not ready, you still will not understand reality fully.  It also suggests that, when describing something, the speaker himself recognizing the futility of actually conveying knowledge, and instead must clear the way for later understanding in the hopes that it will follow.  It isn't too much of a stretch to see this as describing Murakami's writing style.  His words are not employed to literally describe a physical truth.  Rather than driving our thoughts, they are meant to guide them.  He sets us along a path, trusting us to achieve understanding on our own.

As a consequence, a lot of this book is very abstract.  Yes, even by Murakami's standards.  Long passages describe the extremely abstract musings of the narrator, who does not seem very grounded in the physicality of the "real" world.  This is great fun, even if it will drive some readers batty.

At one point, he thinks about the world.  He feels funny about that word, "world".  It makes him think of something enormous, supported by elephants and a turtle.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.  What?  Feeling a little disoriented, I read it over again.  Yep - Murakami was seemingly describing the Discworld.  I checked the copyright page.  This book was written in 1982.  Hm, that seemed awfully early.  I hopped on Wikipedia to check on The Colour of Magic.  1983.  Wow.

I haven't done any further research on this.  It seems impossible that Pratchett, on the opposite side of the world, would have picked up an idea from a non-translated, virtually unknown Japanese novelist.  More likely, both authors are referencing some original myth or tradition that I'm just not familiar with.  Still, though... weird!

Despite the extreme abstractness of the narrator's thought process, as I've described earlier, the book itself follows a more comprehensible plot than most recent Murakami.  There are still some gaps in the logical chain of events - the most obvious being the insights that the girlfriend has into their quest.  True to Murakami form, these are never explained, or even really considered very deeply.  Those exceptions aside, though, the novel mostly unfolds like a good detective story.  They travel, research, find clues, interview people, and try to solve puzzles.  It's a good structure.  I think I might try and hit "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" next to see if I can get more of this mystery-esque influence.


So... what IS the deal with the sheep?  I love this because it is so vividly described, while remaining so baffling.  In contrast with the narrator's wandering musings, there is a direct story that you can piece together about the sheep.  He used to live in rural China where he would possess innocent villagers to sustain his vampiric existence.  After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, he saw his opportunity to take a larger role on the world stage.  He entered the body of a handy soldier, traveled back to the homeland, and then took over a rising young politician.  Controlling the politician through a blood clot in the brain, he built an enormously powerful empire of media and political interests.  However, the politician was weak and aging, so the sheep decided he would have to take advantage of someone younger, more clever and resourceful, to take the next stage.  That stage would expand the media empire to the entire world, presenting The Rat as the savior of mankind by erasing all divisions between people, and uniting humanity under the august leadership of the sheep.  The Rat pieces together the plot and heroically commits suicide after becoming possessed but before the blood clot can develop, killing off himself and the sheep.

There, you see?  No way I could summarize the plot of Kafka on the Shore in one paragraph.

On the other hand: what the hell?  While that paragraph is perfectly comprehensible, it also makes no sense, and even less sense when you consider the other unexplained elements within the story.  Who is the Sheep Man, and what is his relationship to the sheep?  How does the girlfriend know about things - what is her "power"?  Who answers God's phone?  And so on.

All those ambiguities and unexplained mysteries make me smile.  It's what lets me know that I'm reading Murakami.


Another satisfying work by the master.  I highly recommend this book for all but the most committed Murakami-haters.

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