03 May 2011

Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Don't expect many sheep, or chases.
I picked up this book after an acquaintance mentioned I should read it, given the themes of alienation explored. It proclaimed to have crazy people, aphrodisiac ears, professors and genetically engineered sheep, and detectives. I shrugged and figured I'd give it a try.

It turned out that the book was about cigarettes. There's a lot of cigarettes, and a lot of people smoking cigarettes. There are people arguing about and wondering whether it's legal and/or polite to smoke cigarettes in different settings. There are discarded cigarette butts inspected to track people. There is discussion of alcohol that goes best with cigarettes, like beer and whiskey and gin. There is a lot of discussion of smoking cigarettes in the morning, to wake up, and in the evening to calm down, and in all sorts of settings. There is ceremonial exchange of cigarettes and solemn contemplation of cigarette-box designs. I mean, really, there's a lot about cigarettes. Or rather, about cigarette smoking: We don't hear much about the tobacco industry itself per se, to be sure.

I dunno, maybe it's weird for me because I don't smoke. But it felt like reading avant-garde pornography sometimes, only with cigarettes instead of sex. Other things are only given attention in so far as to their relation to cigarettes and the ritual of cigarette smoking.

Oddly, there is no mention of cigars.

The ears mentioned belong to a girlfriend our protagonist and narrator meets. They are pretty. Sex with her feels much better than it would have if she did not have them (or had less pretty ears). We are told nothing else. The sheep... Well, at least we get some resolution regarding it, it's not some heinous "And of the sheep? Nobody knows!" ending we're given. The "detective" business... Some guy wants the protagonist to find a sheep. He decides to find it. He has some degree of success finding it, and smokes cigarettes. It's not really a terribly exciting affair at surface level.

Once you get past that, however, and get used to the nicotine fetish, it's quite entertaining a story. We get to follow a very urban and mundane adventure, which is nevertheless an adventure. We get to encounter a lot of weird occurrences, which are mind-numbingly mundane by fiction standards, but are actually quite interesting in a real-life context. For example, if a novel had the heroine win a lottery ticket but subsequently lose it to a pickpocket, but eventually track him down because the bag he stole had her cell phone in it we would not be very impressed. But if that were to happen to us, or a friend of ours, it would involve quite a bit of agitation. What Murakami managed to do quite well is to invoke that feeling of immersion, so that what is boring fiction becomes fascinating reality. Which is one reason to read the book.

The other is the protagonist. He is the only character the narrative cares about- neither his wife, his new girlfriend, his long lost friends, his colleagues, his employers or his customers are given much attention except where they influence his private goal. But soon enough, we start to care about the narrator as well. And there's reason enough, he is a believable, interesting, sometimes surprising character. You begin to wonder if not what he will do, or what will happen to him (Hint: Nothing much) but what he will experience and what he will think. And that much is fairly unique to Murakami's "A Wild Sheep Chase".

Score: 5/5

Bias: I was on the fence between 4 and 5, but went with 5, because the book just appealed to me on a personal level.

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