He is a man of many identities—jazz café
proprietor, marathon runner, academic,
triathlete, writer, and connoisseur of the
alienated, the bohemian and the odd man
out.  The latter label could apply to Haruki
Murakami himself.  
He is no doubt seen,
in his native Japan, as
the most Westernized
of Eastern authors, but
in the West his books
are just as resistant to
pigeonholing and easy
assimilation. Mix up a
brew of surreal fantasy and gritty urban
realism, blend together the most distinctive
aspects of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.D.
Salinger and Sophocles, serve with a garnish
of rock and jazz. Yet somehow it all coheres,
inventing its own metaphysics along the way.   
Murakami is like those Paris cafés  where,
one is assured, if you sit there long enough,
anybody who is
anybody will eventually stroll
in to view.  In his books, all possibilities can be
actualized, whether they emerge from well-laid
plans or the murky world of dreams. The
judges and arbiters of taste seem to appreciate
this sense for the uncanny, and respond in
kind.  How else would the novel
Kafka on the
, about fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura,
win the Kafka Prize, named after the
(ostensibly unrelated) author Franz Kafka.
That, in itself, could serve as a subject for
one of his books, permeated as they are with
similitude, chance and a fickle destiny.
A Wild Sheep Chase
by Haruki Murakami
Essay by Ted Gioia

The bizarre, the fanciful and the poignant mix in
equal doses in Haruki Murakami’s 1982 novel
Wild Sheep Chase
. The story is just as iconoclastic in
its mash-up of diverse genres. Is it a detective story?
Or a peculiar variant of magical realism? Absurdist
or surreal? A coming-of-age on-the-road story
akin to those of Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger? Or
merely a buddy story or a
boy-meets-girl romance? Or
maybe even boy-meets-sheep?

In truth, Murakami never
commits himself fully to any
one sensibility.  You can in-
terpret this work as a daring
work of conceptual fiction,
or as a spiritual tale incor-
porating a modern day rein-
terpretation of shamanistic
traditions, or, if you so
choose, as an account of
derangement in the spirit of
A Beautiful Mind.  This author is quite content with
ambiguity, as he has proven again and again during
the course of his literary career—when his publisher
put up a web site allowing readers to ask Murakami
questions and resolve uncertainties about a later
book, the novelist was besieged with thousands of
queries.  The same could have happened with
Wild Sheep Chase
, yet the narrative is matter-of-fact
to an extreme in tone and style, a literary equivalent
of the "poker face" in which the most extraordinary
events are related without a glimmer of doubt,
astonishment or surprise.  

A Wild Sheep Chase begins in a realistic mode, with
the unnamed narrator nursing the emotional scars
of a failed marriage, and worrying about the future
of his ad agency, where his partner’s drinking
problem is getting harder and harder to ignore. But
things quickly take a strange turn, starting in our
hero’s private life.  He takes up with a new
girlfriend, tracking her down based on an irresistible
photo of her
ear.   Ah, but he is not the only
individual in this book who takes unprepossessing
snapshots far too seriously:  our protagonist is
approached by a threatening emissary of a wealthy
businessman, who displays an entirely unhealthy
interest in a photo of an unusual sheep—from a
hitherto unknown breed, and with a striking star-
shaped mark on its fleece.  Our narrator had
included the photo, which he had received in the
mail from an old friend, in a corporate brochure
produced by his ad agency. The emissary gives him
thirty days to find the sheep….or else!

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Thus begins our wild sheep chase. Perhaps it
presents a lesser mystery than a high profile murder
or million dollar heist at the Bellagio, but proves no
easier to solve.   The friend, known as "The Rat,"
who had sent our protagonist the sheep photo has
disappeared under mysterious circumstance—
although he sends occasional cryptic letters from
unidentified locales.  With only a photo to go on,
our hero struggles to find the much prized sheep,
and turns to a range of sources—ranchers,
government agencies, tourism bureaus, and other
possible informants—with little to show for his
efforts.  Time is running out, and he has made little
headway in his mission to please the sheep-driven
businessman who has sent him on this seemingly
meaningless escapade.

Yet, as he soon learns, others share this obsession.  
Indeed, a number of characters in this story spend
far too much time worrying about sheep. Before the
novel reaches its conclusion, readers will get to meet
Sheep Professor, who had a deeply fulfilling
merging of souls with a fleecy friend decades ago,
and still hasn't gotten over the break-up. And our
Professor is positively normal when compared with
Sheep Man, who dresses up in sheep's clothing
and lives out in pasture land.

The book takes on the familiar trappings of a vision
quest, those time-honored narratives detailing the
exploits of a valiant hero in pursuit of a mysterious
artifact—the Holy Grail, the Lost Ark, a Maltese
Falcon, etc.  But Murakami undermines the heroic
aspects of his story at every turn, not just in the
choice of a lowly farm animal as the object of
pursuit.  Our narrator is somewhat sheepish himself,
often a passive follower of events rather than a
forceful seizer of the initiative.  In contrast, the
mystery sheep possesses, as it turns out, a much
more robust sense of initiative and purpose—he is
truly the alpha sheep of the flock. What a strange
vision quest it is when the desired treasure at the
end of the trail also has its own agenda and game

Here as elsewhere, Murakami is the master at
infusing the banalities of everyday life with a double
dose of enchantment.  And though this is a lesser
work than his masterpieces
The Wind-Up Bird
Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, it very much set the
stage for these later novels, revealing a beguiling
mixture of the fantastic and quotidian, and testifying
to the author's willingness to move beyond the
rational and conceptual frameworks in which most
modern fictions are situated. Murakami later
described it as "the first book where I could feel a
kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story."  The
reader will experience some of that same joy in
following along on this truly wild sheep chase.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
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Further Clues:

Interview with Haruki Murakami by Laura Miller

Haruki Murakami Resources

"The Whiteness of the Sheep"
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