A Wild Sheep Chase was the first novel I read by the experimental Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I had been forewarned of the weird and surreal journey a Murakami novel can often take the reader, but this only fueled my curiosity. If you are looking for a starter novel to test the Murakami waters then A Wild Sheep Chase is a good starting point.
The novel is the third book in the so-called “Trilogy of the Rat”. Preceded by Hear the Wind Sing (1979) which chronologically is the first book in the series, and is a direct sequel to book number two, Pinball (1973). A Wild Sheep Chase is a standalone book, and the reader will garner only minor context by reading the two prequels beforehand. It is a matter of debate among Murakami fans, on the reading order of the Rat Trilogy. A fourth book, Dance Dance Dance (1988) is an epilogue for the series, a direct sequel to Sheep Chase, and should certainly be read in sequence.
This ambiguity is rife throughout Murakami’s work. Even the recommended reading order of a series cannot be agreed. A Murakami novel can be thoroughly enjoyed on face value, the stories are well constructed and provide sufficient entertainment for an easy read. But the further a reader wants to scratch, a more complex set of layers will be uncovered, woven with metaphors and existential questioning.
The story itself follows a conventional path for the most part. A semi-successful advertising executive is dealing with his recent divorce when he inadvertently posts an image of a sheep within an advertising campaign. The unnamed protagonist, unaware the sheep is a mutant with a hidden secret, is given an ultimatum by a mysterious man in black. Find the sheep or face the wrath of the sinister organization he represents.
A surreal-comedic detective-mystery unf0lds, entwining mythology, and a complex adventure from Tokyo to the remote snowy mountains of northern Japan. The protagonist faces his past and inner demons, in a search for identity and purpose common to Murakami themes.
To explain why this book was so enjoyable and gratifying is as mysterious as the story itself. The characters are quirky and conflicted, yet average and simple. By the end of the book, I was inspired to clean my house from top to bottom after the protagonist committed a similar cleansing at a snowed covered winter lodge. It is this simplistic embrace of the story that baffles fans and critics alike. The story may always be ambiguous, but the prose is clear, curt and easy to maneuver.
My favorite character was the mysterious Sheep Man, believed to be part sheep and part human, he appears as an apparition to the main character in the mountains.
“The Sheep Man wore a full sheepskin pulled over his head. The arms and legs were fake and patched on, but his stocky body fit the costume perfectly. The hood was also fake, but the two horns that curled from his crown were absolutely real.
All of his sentences in the book lack spacing or capitalization, making him appear more animal-like than human
The novel won the 1982 Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize and is credited with launching Murakami’s international reputation and career.
From the book blurb:
A marvelous hybrid of mythology and mystery, A Wild Sheep Chase is the extraordinary literary thriller that launched Haruki Murakami’s international reputation.
It begins simply enough: A twenty-something advertising executive receives a postcard from a friend, and casually appropriates the image for an insurance company’s advertisement. What he doesn’t realize is that included in the pastoral scene is a mutant sheep with a star on its back, and in using this photo he has unwittingly captured the attention of a man in black who offers a menacing ultimatum: find the sheep or face dire consequences. Thus begins a surreal and elaborate quest that takes our hero from the urban haunts of Tokyo to the remote and snowy mountains of northern Japan, where he confronts not only the mythological sheep, but the confines of tradition and the demons deep within himself. Quirky and utterly captivating, A Wild Sheep Chase is Murakami at his astounding best.