Saturday, May 05, 2007

Reading group: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Everyone round to ours on Wednesday for the reading group to discuss A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese).

None of us had read Murakami before, and during the week beforehand John and I had bumped into Doug and Ann separately, and each had told us that they were having difficulty getting going with the book. They would read a few pages, fail to get gripped and put it down, and then when they picked it up again find they couldn't remember it and had to start all over again. John and I told them that we were having precisely the same experience.

Ann said, 'I don't know where it's going', and I said, 'I don't know where it's coming from.' We felt we couldn't grasp the tenor of the opening chapters in which an unnamed thirty-year-old narrator attends the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and reminisces about their meeting and relationship before going back to his flat to find his ex-wife briefly returned to collect her things. While the stunning prose made all of this seem significant, there was also a sense of structural inconsequentiality about it, and indeed the story seems only to get going the next morning after the ex-wife has left and the vacationing narrator is called to his office to discover that he has been summoned by a mysterious stranger to engage on a 'wild sheep chase'.

Before this point, however, a surreal and absurdist element had entered the narration, which should have warned us that the conventional expectations with which we were reading this book were inappropriate: the narrator, it turns out, has a new girlfriend with ears so exquisite (and which during one conversation she sits carefully cleaning) that when they are on view and 'unblocked' in terms of channelling their power, they promote super-sensational sex. She is also possessed of a special sixth sense, which means she guesses that the phone call will come summoning the narrator, and knows it will be all about a sheep.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he had found it very interesting but strange. He had indeed become involved at this point, and wanted to know what was going to happen, but the more that was revealed to him the less he could take it, a tale about a sheep which may or may not exist, with the power to possess a human and thereby dominate the world.

However, Doug and I had experienced an opposite effect. Doug said that once he understood he needed to accept the book as absurdist, he began to really enjoy its off-the-wall turns, its humour and, like me, its memorable evocation of the spirit of situations and things, landscape and the weather. By the end of our journey with this chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking narrator prone to bouts of philosophising which end with banalities ( 'I came to the realisation ... that I am not a whale') or are abandoned for a drink or a fag, whose Sherlock-Holmes-type reliance on clues turns out to be beside the point, we had come to understand the reason for the strangely inconsequential yet seemingly significant beginning.

The book is indeed about inconsequentiality, and the strange paradox that the seemingly inconsequential things, or the episodes which on the rational level are no longer relevant, are nevertheless evocative and important on the level of emotional experience, while the importance of those things which seem significant in the grand, Western-hero quest tradition, is unstable. Thus the girlfriend with the ears, who seemed so central to the endeavour, turns out to be not so important to the plot after all. Evidence too the absurd way, which had made everyone laugh, that the narrator gets the sinister figure who sends him on his quest to look after his ailing, farting cat while he is gone. The narrator has never named this cat, and during his narration never names any of the other characters: as Clare said, names fix things artificially and thus deny the truth that importance is relative, and reality fluid.

Several people, even Doug, thought that the ending, which I won't give away, was disappointing, but to me it endorsed this view of the book and was therefore fitting.

Then people got interested in the different covers of the book in the different editions we had and agreed that the one above (the latest Vintage paperback) was best. A general conversation started up about covers, and I asked everyone to help me think about ideas I might suggest for the cover of my forthcoming book, which isn't decided on yet.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.