Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki

This is the 3rd book of Murakami Haruki and the 3rd part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The prequels are ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball 1973’, the sequel is ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’. I have not read the first books, honestly due to lack of interest so far. They came into my focus shortly when they were published in German language in 2014, but I have forgotten them. A new English version is also available since 2015.

It is my second reading of the ‘Wild Sheep Chase’. I bought the first English paperback edition in Tokyo some time ago and was delighted: the writing was so different and fresh then. This time it was different to me: the melody sounded more seriously, but the story still interested me. Murakami was a young man, when he wrote the book, and is regarding ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ as his first real book. With it he was laying the groundwork as a popular Japanese writer.

There are many similarities in his later works. The typical lonely protagonist here is a nameless translator and publicist. A friend of ‘the Rat’ from the first two books.

He is working in a small ad agency, which he owns together with a male business partner. The story plays during four weeks in 1978. It starts when the protagonist uses a photo of an idyllic landscape of Northern Japan: only mountains in the background and many sheep on grass. A lovely scenery useful for a print advertising.

Soon afterwards a gangster appears in his office. He threatens him, because he had used the sheep photograph. He forces the protagonist to look closely at the herding sheep, and then he recognizes an unusual sheep with a star on his back! This is meant to be a very special sheep. And his life will depend on it.

The sheep has some transcendent meaning. It is said to possess magical power. The boss of the gangster is a powerfull right-wing figure who had built an underground network since 1937. He himself was possessed by the mentioned sheep, which helped him, but he lost it not long ago. The boss is dying. But before his death the sheep must be found, or his underground mob group will fall into pieces.

So, the gangster sends the protagonist on a dead or alive mission to find the sheep with the star on his back. And, the wild sheep chase begins.

The protagonist is recently divorced, but got to know a new girlfriend, a special lady who works as an ear model. She will accompany him on his journey. They will go to Hokkaidô and check-in at the Dolphin Hotel, which is known from Dance, Dance, Dance. On their tour they will encounter strange people and get stranded in a lonely place. The story comes with some surprising turns, but the full meaning of all will unfold in the end.

The book is written from the first person’s perspective. The narrative style is interesting, funny, and witty. The author is also critical about the Japanese history. Although it is an early work of Murakami Haruki you will find the typical mixture of a lonely protagonist alongside quirky characters, read his philosophical thoughts and will witness supernatural encounters. In the end it made me curious about the first books.

Book title

Murakami Haruki: A Wild Sheep Chase, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. First edition by Kodansha International, 1989.

村上春樹: 羊をめぐる冒険 , 講談社, 1982.

Book Review: Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki

“That sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting.”

The narrator of Killing Commendatore is a nameless portrait painter in his 30‘s living in Tokyo married to Yuzu, a female architect. Suddenly she is asking for a divorce, because she is in love with another man. She is having an affair for months now.

The narrator moves out. To get some fresh air he first goes on a trip to North Japan by car for over a month and a half. Then he settles for a living in an old wooden mountaintop house in Odawara, which belongs to the father of his friend Masahiko Amada. The old man was a famous painter, named Tomohiko Amada. Now he is in his 90‘s, suffering from dementia, and living in a nursing home near Izu Kogen.

The old house is fully furnished and equipped with things belonging to the old painter including a painting studio. There the narrator is living a simple tech-free life in the woods for the time of the story. He listens to records, mainly classical music, repeatedly to the comic opera of Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).

After a short period of time he gets a call from his agent: a client named Wataru Menshiki wants to be painted by him and only by him for a huge amount of money. The narrator cannot decline.

So, a mysterious stranger appears in his house. Tall, slim, white hair, perfectly in style. He is 54 years old, living as a single person in a white mansion across the mountain in view of the old house. He has become rich by selling his own tech company and by stock trading. His business is somewhat unclear and remains hidden in the dark as an undescribed internet business.

He sits regularly as a model in the studio, but the narrator is not capable of painting him, because he is hiding something and appears to be soulless. There is nothing personal about Menshiki, he seems to be an empty shell.

The narrator describes his painting process to the reader and gives some background information about traditional Japanese painting techniques. This becomes an integral part of the story.

The atmosphere of the novel is loaded with fear. Something bad will happen. It is lingering in the air. Menshiki is mysterious and the narrator does not know, if he can trust him. Why is he paying him a huge amount of money for his portrait? Why is he living alone in a big mansion? And what is he really working at?

Puzzling events occur after the narrator finds an old painting made by Tomohiko Amada in the attic. This is called Killing Commendatore.

First there is a mysterious ringing bell in the middle of the night which wakes the narrator. It comes from outside. The narrator cannot ignore the sound and goes out to explore the strange phenomenon. In the backyard of the house there is an old forgotten Shinto shrine. Nothing special, something you find overall in Japan.

There he sees some square stones covered with moss. Is something or someone causing the ringing in a pit hidden by the stones down there? A nightmarish situation.

In the morning after the incident the narrator is suddenly capable of painting the outlines of Menshiki‘s portrait.

After telling him about the strange occurrence in the night, they both decide to remove the stones near the shrine. A pit in the backyard is revealed. Which leads to another strange event: the painting Killing Commendatore becomes alive. With that in the open a wild story is developing.

The structure of the novel

The story is being told basically in chronological order taking place in the first decade of 2000 from the perspective of the narrator with many flashbacks of his childhood and of past events of the main persons, mainly Menshiki and the old painter. There are also some backstories of the narrator’s sister. As the story evolves two female characters become important: the 13-year old Mariye and her attractive aunt Shoko Akikawa.

Two discoveries initiate mysterious events

  1. The painting called Killing Commendatore
  2. The pit in the backyard at the old shrine

The story of Menshiki is relevant as a counterpart of the narrator’s life.

First Menshiki is portrayed as a perfect being, that one could believe he is an android. The background story of Menshiki is being told as the story evolves.

He was never willing to get married, although he had a meaningful love affair with a woman. She got pregnant and yet broke up with him. Then she got married to another man. (This is a parallel to the personal story of the narrator.)

She was killed by a hornet, caused by an allergic reaction, when her child Mariye was about six years old. Her husband, now being alone with the young daughter, asked his sister Shoko to live with them and take care of Mariye. Shoko, the aunt of Mariye, became like a mother to her. Mariye is thirteen years old when the story is happening. The family is also living in Odawara nearby the old house and the family’s house is vis-à-vis to Menshiki’s mansion.

Menshiki is possessed by the idea, that Mariye could be his child, but he is not certain of it. His uncertainty gives him reason to watch her from afar. His behavior makes him appear as a creepy stalker and dangerous man.

After the completion of Menshiki‘s portrait, he asked the narrator to paint another portrait, now a painting of Mariye. Although considering the strange behavior of Menshiki, the narrator is willing to do so under his own conditions. The working contract regulates the painting process and his own right to sell it or not. But he still feels guilty of being complicit and has concerns about being used by Menshiki. After reconsidering it he comes to the conclusion that he can make a difference and that he is not helpless. So, he is going to paint Mariye.

From now on the narrator is drawn deeply into a multi-level nightmarish story with supernatural and paranormal elements. Surreal scenes, sounds, hallucinations, fears, memories, dreams feeling like reality accompany his own soul-searching. Elements of ghost-stories and Japanese folktales are also part of the storytelling.

The overall atmosphere is dominated by fear. Fear of looking into an abyss, fear to see the past clearly and to understand the meaning of past and present events. Everyone has a secret…

Conclusion

Part of the process is, that not every secret will be unraveled in the end. Although there remain unanswered questions, the narrator has clearly undergone some major changes towards the end, and he is able to make clear decisions. After gaining insights through soul-searching he can make his peace so far. Being together with Yuzu after a phase of self-discovery feels right, which he already points out in the beginning. The narrator lived through an exciting story and his soul is released.

The novel is 704 pages long. It took me some days to read it through. The path was not always clear and sometimes I did not know, where the story will lead me to. Surely one can analyze the meaning of everything and every metaphor, but I am not going to do that here. This would lead to a very long article. What is becoming of Menshiki and Mariye? Interesting question. I think you can go on a journey with the narrator and explore all the weird stuff happening. I guess, it probably will have a different effect on you.

In the course of reading the novel I lost track sometimes, and sometimes I was bored. It was like, when you are thinking things over and over. The story is repetitive in some chapters, but I read every page of the book. In the end I think it was worth it. You can see the whole picture then. It becomes a full circle. I would recommend the book Killing Commendatore to artists, to fans of Murakami Haruki and to people, who like to stay for a while in Odawara with a nameless Japanese painter reading his long book and discover something new.

Book title

The book was first published in two volumes in Japan: 騎士団長殺し:第1部 顕れるイデア編. Killing Commendatore. 1. Teil. The Idea made visible. 騎士団長殺し: 第2部 遷ろうメタファー編. Killing Commendatore. 2. Teil. The Shifting Metaphor. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen. Harvill Secker, London. Published in English in 2018. 704 pages.

Book Review: The Strange Library by Murakami Haruki

The Strange Library (ふしぎな図書館: fushigi na toshokan) is a short story by Murakami Haruki.

The Japanese version was published  with  illustrations by Maki Sasaki in 2008. The story is based on a former different version (図書館奇談 toshokan kidan) published in the short story collection カンガルー日和 (kangaruu hiyori. Good weather for kangaroos) of 1986.

The Strange Library is told  from the perspective of a shy little boy who loves to read. On his way back from school it pops into his mind to borrow some history books from the local library.  Starting the moment he enters the building everything turns out very strange. First he is directed to room No. 107 in the basement where he never had been before and meets an odd librarian, who seems to inhabit this dusted dark area for ages.

The boy asks him politely for the book titles. The old man mumbles and rumbles on his way to a hidden archive in the back of the library.  When he returns with the books, he tells the boy, that it is forbidden to take them home. He has to stay and read them in a separate study room.  Now the boy is slightly scared by the man, and the thought of staying here any longer makes him feel uncomfortable, but he is also feeling obliged to go to the reading area and make no fuss about it.

Intimidated he follows the old weird man further downstairs through a labyrinth. Finally reaching the room the boy sits down to read. After a short while the sheepman arrives on the scene. He then tells him, that the boy is being held hostage. A wild and spooky story unfolds with an unforeseen twist at the end.

In this early work Murakami  makes use of surreal story telling, for which he is known as a bestseller author. The book is pretty short, but along with many illustrations it is an entertaining read. For students with intermediate language skills the Japanese version is relatively easy to understand.

Translations are available in many languages. I have seen the English and German versions of the book. The illustrations are very different from the Japanese version.

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹. Illustrated by 佐々木木マキ。2008.

 

Reading in October

In October people visiting Japan Kaleidoskop were mostly interested in Japanese Literature. As in the month before the two mostly read book reviews were the same as in the month before.

Men without women by Murakami Haruki  and Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari.

Two titles of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô  are on the third  and fourth place. Books I personally adore: The Makikoka Sisters followed by Naomi.

And  surprisingly for the first time people were much interested in reading the book review of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Store  which is a fun book to read.

I am currently reading Murakami’s 1Q84 and Yukio Mishima’s  Thirst for Love, probably I will finish the last soon and will write a review here.

My readers came mostly from this countries, in this order:

  1. The United States
  2. Phillipines
  3. Japan
  4. Germany
  5. Netherlands
  6. Canada

There were many searches on Japan Kaleidoskop and I am very happy, that you enjoy my blog and that it is useful for many readers.

Surprisingly ‘Dreaming of Kimchee‘ was searched for several times. And first I did not know, what is was. But then I remembered: It is a short story of Banana Yoshimoto in her book Lizard.

My favorite search term of October is ‘Japanese woman holding a lantern‘, which probably was not found, because there is no tag like this. But there is a very lovely picture of Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770) on this blog. It was on Art on Tuesday on January 7th, 2014.

Thank you for visiting and reading Japan Kaleidoskop. I wish you a happy autumn!

Plumblossom

Hear the music of 1Q84 Book I

To begin with It’s only a Paper Moon is the overall theme of 1Q84. The book I am  currently reading for the third time.

Murakami Haruki is referring to music in his stories very often, which makes them all the more fun to read. So I wanted to hear the song he is mentioning in the novel and this is what I have found. There are many versions of the Paper Moon song, but these are the best on YouTube in my opinion. It’s a good way to start with to get in the mood of reading the 1ooo pages of this multi-faceted novel. The first version is not only instrumental, but the singing starts about a minute from the beginning. The pictures are so cute. The Japanese singer Saori Yuki 由紀さおり is singing the other version.

The first chapter of 1Q84 begins with the introduction of Aomame, the female main character of the book. She is sitting in a taxi stuck in a traffic jam on a highway in Tokyo on her way to an important date.

The radio plays Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček of 1926. You should hear this and read the first chapter. It is a perfect, grandiose background music of the appearance of this strong woman.

More about the book itself, when I have finished reading the book One, which can probably last a while. Meanwhile I am enjoying the music! I hope you too.