I have finished Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, and I’m kind of still digesting the novel. I feel like someone pulled the rug out from under me, and I’m still trying to decide if it was funny or just plain mean. This isn’t to say the book was funny or the ending was a joke; quite the opposite. For 285 pages, I hung in there based off a promise made on page 49: “‘Listen, an important phone call is going to come through in ten minutes. […] Something about sheep. Lots of sheep, and one sheep in particular. […] And that’ll be the beginning of a wild adventure.'” It mostly lived up to this assertion. Now that it’s all over, I am deliberating and sorting out my feelings.
Perhaps it wasn’t fair to be reading this novel concurrently with The Count of Monte Cristo. This novel is certainly an adventure, but of a very different sort than the French revenge story. Instead of mercilessly hunting down opponents and driving them to death or insanity, our protagonist in Wild Sheep Chase is up against a nameless, faceless adversary; an adversary that, even from the confines of his deathbed, is able to make an offer our nameless main character can’t refuse.
(Yes, I realize that I just used “nameless” twice within the same sentence. This is because Murakami does not relate a single character’s name in this novel. A few characters are referred to by nicknames or initials – such as Rat or J – but that’s it. I actually think it’s a testament to Murakami’s skill and style that, as a reader, I hardly noticed the lack of names. I’ve really only started thinking about it now, as I write this.)
At any rate, this adventure is not your typical rollicking, action-filled beach read. It’s more like tugging on a thread, untangling the knots, and suddenly finding that your sweater is just a heap of yarn. It really is a fantastic novel, but don’t expect gunfights or car chases. It’s simply not that kind of adventure. It’s cerebral and emotional, with unexpected glimpses into characters’ pasts and presents as the stepping stones to the dénouement. Though various scenes come before it, the real story begins with the aforementioned quote from page 49. The protagonist gets an odd call from his business partner, and is swept against his will into a sideways world in which a seemingly innocuous photo of sheep in a pasture has become a death sentence. A man who works for “the Boss” orders that the protagonist hunt down one particular sheep out of the flock in the photo within a month. If he refuses or fails, he will be killed. The story is almost noir in many ways: filled with rainy nights, long train rides, and a girl who enters and exits the tarnished hero’s life like a phantom.
Our protagonist (for convenience, I am going to start calling him Tanaka) meanders through Japan’s northern countryside, picking up clues in the most unlikely of places. His best lead comes from a man known as the Sheep Professor, who spins him a philosophical tale of ovine spirit guides and misunderstood power sources. Tanaka then heads for the mountains, finding a remote homestead near an isolated town that may in fact hold all the answers. Along with his girlfriend, Tanaka makes the trek (two trains, a 3-hour car ride, and then an hour-and-a-half hike) to this sheep mecca with high hopes of solving the mystery and retaining his life. His hopes rest on finding his long-lost friend Rat, who sent Tanaka the photo in the first place.
Instead, the homestead is empty. Beautifully, starkly, empty. The pasture is clearly that in the photograph, but there are no sheep to be found. Nor are there any people, though the cabin is fully stocked with food and fuel, as if the occupant had simply stepped out for a moment. Of course, being over four hours from the nearest town, there is nowhere for Rat to have stepped out to. Interestingly, it was at this point that I had an inkling of what might come, though Murakami swiftly diverted my attention with an oddly spellbinding character until I forgot my theory. Without giving the ending completely away, I have to say that while I was satisfied — not thrilled, but happy enough — with the answers Tanaka gained from Rat, I felt the manner in which Murakami delivered them was superb. It was an exceptionally well-written scene.
After that scene, however, the book ended all too quickly. There is an alarming decent back to earth, though one last image that Tanaka describes seeing from the train window brings a whole new sense of unease and unfinished business. This is why I was left with the rug-pulled-out feeling. I waited the entire novel for something to happen, then it did, and then there were no more pages in the book. While I do appreciate the simplicity and open-ended nature of the minimalist ending, I felt it left a something intangible to be desired. Or perhaps it’s a mark of Murakami’s skill that I want more.
Either way, this novel was well worth the read, and I absolutely plan to read more of Murakami’s work.