53 pages • 1 hour readHaruki Murakami
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A Wild Sheep Chase is the third novel by Haruki Murakami, an internationally-acclaimed author who most recently won the Jerusalem Prize, and whose work has been translated into over fifty languages. It was originally published in 1982.
The 29-year-old narrator of the novel, who is never named, works for an advertising agency in Tokyo and leads a lonely and regimented life. He is divorced, childless, and has a girlfriend who moonlights as a prostitute, proofreader and ear model. The first part of the novel is relatively realistic, describing the narrator’s fragmented romantic history and rootless urban existence. The novel opens with the narrator’s discovery that a woman with whom he had a casual affair in college—and whose name he cannot recall—has been killed by a passing truck. The novel then jumps ahead in time; the narrator is in the process of splitting up with his wife, for reasons that are never specified. It then jumps ahead two months to describe his present girlfriend, whose ears are mysteriously bewitching to him but who is an unremarkable convenience to him otherwise.
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The narrator’s quest begins when a well-groomed and inscrutable man visits the advertising agency at which the narrator works. The man has seen a photograph that the narrator has used for an ad campaign that shows a herd of sheep near a mountain somewhere in the wilds of Japan. The narrator was given the photograph by his nomadic and reclusive friend Rat, who has long disappeared from his life but who writes him letters from increasingly remote addresses. The visitor to the ad agency wishes for the narrator to do two things: withdraw the ad from publication and find a particular sheep that is pictured in the ad, which stands out from the other sheep by having a star-shaped mark on its back. The visitor gives the narrator a month to find the sheep, and threatens the narrator and his partner with shutting down their agency and ruining their livelihoods if the narrator does not comply. The visitor is acting on the behest of a mysterious and powerful figure known only as “the Boss,” who is mortally ill and who has been somehow psychically invaded by the sheep that the narrator is supposed to track down.
The narrator and his girlfriend attempt to find Rat’s whereabouts. They have only the postmark from his last letter for a clue, which leads them to a remote and desolate part of Japan. There, they stay at a run-down hotel called the Dolphin and begin their search for the elusive magical sheep. This search leads nowhere at first, but they run into luck when the proprietor of the hotel tells them that his father, from whom he is estranged, is a former minister of agriculture and lives at the hotel. The father turns out to be an imposing but also ruined figure, whose life has been given over to the same sheep that the narrator is attempting to find. He tells the narrator that he, like the Boss, was “inhabited” by this sheep, but that the sheep then left him. The narrator also spies, in the hotel lobby, a painting that displays the same pastoral scene as Rat’s photograph.
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The narrator and his girlfriend go up into the mountains surrounding the town, in search of the sheep and the pasture in the photograph. They are driven halfway up by a friendly local shepherd, who then abandons them to walk the rest of the way at an especially precarious turn. The landscape that they come upon is wild and lonely, but also peaceful and beautiful. They stay at Rat’s family’s former summer house—the place where Rat intimated to the narrator that he was going, in his last letter to him. The house shows signs of recent habitation, but Rat himself is nowhere to be found, and neither is the magical sheep. After their first night together in the house, the girlfriend disappears, and except for occasional visits from a strange hybrid figure called “the Sheep Man”–a short, stout man zipped into a sheep suit–the narrator finds himself entirely alone. It is a state that for him is both ecstatic and disorienting. He occupies himself for the next several days with making meals, taking walks and having occasional visits with the gruff and abrupt Sheep Man, who is evasive about Rat’s whereabouts and the whereabouts of his girlfriend.
When the narrator one day notices that the Sheep Man is present on Rat’s living room couch, but gives no reflection in the mirror, he realizes that the Sheep Man is a sort of spirit, and perhaps even a figment of the narrator’s own imagination. He angrily calls the Sheep Man’s bluff, and tells him that he will see Rat that evening. Rat shows up an hour early for their appointed date, but insists that they sit in darkness as they drink beers and talk. It turns out that Rat is, as the narrator has already suspected, a ghost. He tells the narrator that he hung himself a week prior to the narrator’s occupancy in the house. He hung himself in order to kill the magical sheep, who had been inhabiting him, as he had inhabited the Boss and the hotel keeper’s father before him. Rat further tells the narrator that he had had to get the narrator’s girlfriend out of the house (it is unclear whether or not she was killed) because he had found her presence disruptive. He also confirms to the narrator that the Sheep Man was also Rat, though in a different manifestation. Rat then disappears, after telling the narrator that he has a rendezvous at noon the following day with the Boss’s emissary: the same man who sent the narrator on his quest to find the sheep, for which the following day is also the deadline.
The following day, the narrator makes his way down the mountain. At the same treacherous bend in the road where the narrator and his girlfriend began the walking part of their journey several days earlier, the narrator discovers the emissary and his chauffeured car waiting for him. The emissary, who has apparently known the location of the meadow in the photograph all along, expresses his satisfaction with the narrator’s performance and hands him a large check. The narrator uses this check to finance the new bar of his old hometown acquaintance J, who also knew Rat. The narrator tells J that he and Rat will be his “silent partners.” He then takes a solitary walk along the beach nearby (which has been so developed that it is barely a beach at all any more) and weeps, for the first time in the novel.
By Haruki Murakami