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Haruki Murakami: 羊をめぐる冒険 (A Wild Sheep Chase)

In some respects this reads like a slightly kooky American detective novel, apart from the fact that it is set in Japan and the occasionally odd English shows it is a translation. It is clear that Murakami has read his American detective novels. But this novel is a lot more than a straightforward detective novel. Though the novel is well disguised as a witty, somewhat offhand quest by a fairly ordinary Japanese man, gradually – very gradually – we come to see it is about nothing less than the soul of Japan.

The hero – he may have a name but I do not recall it being mentioned – has a mundane life. He runs a small copywriting-cum-translation agency with a partner. At the start of the novel, he has just broken up with his wife for no obvious reason. He falls in love with the ears of a young woman and they start a relationship. In one of his jobs, he copied an apparently innocuous photo he had received from a friend – Rat – of a mountain scene with sheep grazing in the foreground. Rat has disappeared but sends occasional letters without revealing his whereabouts. A leading right-wing Japanese politician is very interested in the picture, because one of the sheep in the picture is a very special sheep with a star on its back and of a breed not found in Japan. He is summoned to the politician’s office and is ordered – Mafia-style – to find the sheep or see his career completely in ruins. He and the girlfriend with the ears trace the sheep and much of the novel is about their quest. Rat, of course, is involved. And the sheep? He is the spirit of right-wing Japan.

This bland recital of the plot does not indicate how cleverly Murakami leads us along with his sympathetic and witty, though ordinary hero and his adventures. The hero, while not making a stand, is very much his own man and goes along with the sheep idea as much out of interest than because of the threats. But Murakami gradually, almost casually, leads us into the byways of right-wing Japanese politics and the dangers that they offer to present-day Japan. There is no ranting and raving; rather it is all very gentle but we get a sense – even we gaijin – that the situation is real and dangerous and has to be confronted by the average citizen. This is very much a book that bears rereading as it is deceptively simple but, don’t be fooled. There is more than meets the eye.

Publishing history

First published by Kodansha, Tokyo in 1982 in Japanese