A Wild Sheep Chase

by Haruki Murakami

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In A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s first novel to attract international attention, the nameless narrator has been abandoned by his wife, who has run away with his friend. Bored with his job as an advertising copywriter, he thinks of himself as utterly mediocre. A lyric from Irving Caesar’s 1929 song “Just a Gigolo” describes his life: “The world goes on without me.”

His placid existence begins to unravel when a mysterious man threatens to shut down the advertising business because of a picture of sheep grazing that was published in an insurance company newsletter. Because the threat comes from a representative of a powerful right-wing manipulator known as the Boss, it must be taken seriously. The protagonist copied the photograph from a postcard sent by a friend in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.

En route the narrator meets an old acquaintance, J, a bar owner who has never had a drop of liquor, a typical bit of Murakami whimsical paradox. J encourages the narrator to accept that there are no rules that say things have to follow a certain pattern. Acceptance of the unexpected, of the randomness of events, is a major Murakami theme.

The protagonist learns he is seeking a single sheep, one with a star-shaped birthmark, the same symbol representing the Boss’s organization. He learns how the Boss gained his power and the mysterious part played by this particular sheep. Arriving in Hokkaido, the narrator stays at the Dolphin Hotel. Once the Hokkaido Ovine Hall, it retains a sheep reference room, one of many libraries where Murakami’s characters seek guidance. He meets the hotel owner’s father, known as the Sheep Professor, into whose consciousness the star-marked sheep entered in 1935. In telling about this sheep, the professor sees sheep as a metaphor for Japanese society, which he criticizes for learning little from other Asian cultures. The sheep, which plans to transform humanity, left the professor for the Boss, who is dying because the animal’s spirit has abandoned him.

One of the reasons so many Murakami characters do not have names is their tenuous grasp on reality and their identities. The narrator confesses to his girlfriend that he is not convinced of the usefulness of names. When the Boss’s chauffeur names his nameless cat Kipper, the narrator is surprised to recall that he has a name, too. The identity theme is also represented by the Sheep Professor’s uncertainty over how much of himself is him and how much is the sheep’s shadow. The narrator’s quest is as much for a better sense of himself as it is for the sheep.

From the professor, the narrator learns about the site in the photograph. Accompanied by his girlfriend, he makes his way to a mountain villa belonging to the Rat’s father. There he meets the Sheep Man, a diminutive gentleman dressed in a sheep costume. The narrator realizes he is on a quest for his identity, the adventure of the search providing a respite from the meaninglessness of his life. He discovers that the Rat and the Sheep Man are the same person. Psychological doubles occur frequently in Murakami’s fiction. A conversation with the spirit of the Rat, who has committed suicide, brings matters to a resolution of sorts. The narrator becomes reconciled to his existence; no matter how boring or mediocre it may seem, it still has value. The narrator’s girlfriend disappears, and his search for her is only one of several quests in Dance Dance Dance, the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase.

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