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Help! His Best Friend Is Turning Into a Sheep! : A WILD SHEEP CHASE <i> by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum (Kodansha International: $18.95; 320 pp.) </i>

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I remember an afternoon picnic in Bel-Air that a motion-picture executive gave to honor the visit of my husband. He warmly welcomed my two sons standing beside me. Then, as if I were not there at all, he stepped forward to greet the next incoming guests, ignoring me completely, assuming automatically that any non-Caucasian accompanying children to their home was an au pair or a nanny, hardly an invited guest.

So much for image and preconception--and prejudice, appearance as opposed to reality. And yet it is image, often self-conscious and self-deluding, superficial and affected, that explains, I think, the phenomenal popularity of the work of Haruki Murakami in Japan--especially with the young, that generation of Japan’s postwar baby boom who began to come of age in the ‘60s preaching revolution and has wound up reading manga-- comic books--on crowded commuter trains.

These are the people who have taken their places sheep-like on the conveyor belt of Japanese society as salaried men and housewives, but still like to harbor images of themselves as cool and hip and laid-back, sophisticated and aware, and, yes, above all, Western. In their hierarchy of taste, a Burger King hamburger and a piece of the Colonel’s chicken rank higher than sushi. Phony is the Western word that most easily comes to mind.

Murakami’s two most recent novels, whose titles in Japanese are “Norwegian Wood,” as in the Beatles’ song title, and “Dance, Dance, Dance,” as in the English expression, have sold about 5 million copies, cloth, in Japan. Young Japanese readers are said to be as much taken with Murakami’s own personal life style as with his books themselves. After graduation from college, instead of getting a corporate job, he ran his own coffee shop. He also embarked upon a career as a translator, serving the work of American writers such as Raymond Carver.

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“A Wild Sheep Chase” is an earlier novel of Murakami’s that evidences both his celebrated flair and his characteristic weaknesses. First, he is immensely readable, his pages as easily consumable as bar peanuts. In a staccato, hard-boiled American style, he tattoos out short, snappy sentences of world-weary deadpan. And he is as promiscuous in name-brand dropping as some of the more notorious American brand-name novelists.

Here is a sample paragraph from “A Wild Sheep Chase”:

“It was already dark out. I slipped some change, my cigarettes and a lighter into my pocket, put on my tennis shoes, and stepped outside. At my neighborhood dive, I drank a beer while listening to the latest Brothers Johnson record. I ate my chicken cutlet while listening to a Bill Withers record. I had some coffee while listening to Maynard Ferguson’s Star Wars. After all that, I felt as if I’d hardly eaten anything.”

Does it not sound more like a black Raymond Carver or a recycled Raymond Chandler or some new ghetto private eye than a contemporary Japanese novelist? And if it were not for the next sentence--"They cleared away my coffee cup and I put three ten-yen coins into the pink public phone and rang up my partner"--the Martian reader could scarcely guess that the description rendered is theoretically one of contemporary Japan.

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I don’t remember Murakami’s plots as ever having been considered one of his strong points as a writer. In fact, no one I know can quite recall any of them. And after reading “A Wild Sheep Chase” in both English and Japanese I am still hard put to sum it up. But let me at least try to give you a sense of the book. Its basic structure is that of a mystery or suspense novel. Unfortunately, the mystery and suspense do not begin until about halfway through. Up to that point, it seems successively a meditation and memoir about the existential generation of the ‘60s; an examination of an ear fetish which might be interpreted either as a homage or a satire of Tanazaki’s well known foot fixation; and a chronicle of the dissolution of a marriage in which communication has been so poor that it is not until the partners’ final parting that the idea of either possibly ever having wanted to have children comes up.

After the extended throat-clearing comes the kind of traditional ghost tale that both children and manga readers might enjoy. This involves a power-hungry sheep, with a peculiar star brand on its back, which, starting with Genghis Khan himself, has entered into people, Dybbuk-like, and taken over their lives until it decides to move on, self-exorcised, leaving the vacated human premises tragically weak and helpless. One of the victims of the sheep is a right-wing political boss, another is a sheep professor, and a third is a teen-age friend of the hero. Which explains how the hero, himself a most passive ad-agency co-owner, is drawn into the proceedings.

Finally, I must say I felt strange reading something so imitative and derivative in tone from American writing in English translation. I am not sure anyone in Japan ever has talked the way Murakami’s characters do. Not that Alfred Birnbaum’s excellent translation has not gotten Murakami’s sentences down exactly right. But it is Murakami himself who seems more interested in imitation than in substance, in appearance and image than in reality. And so, too, do his millions of young readers, who evidently prefer browsing through manufactured- product labels and borrowed images than in feeling the raw levels inherent in genuine human emotion.


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