Sheeped

Julian Loose

  • The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
    Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 241 13144 8

Entering a Japanese department store one December, an American was startled to see, among the festive tinsel and fairy lights, an unusual seasonal decoration – a row of Father Christmases, crucified. Apocryphal, perhaps, but the endless production of blithe parodies of Western icons has surely struck more than one visiting gaijin. Japan is both closer and further than we think: it returns our language and traditions oddly transformed, yet to us many of its own categories are mysterious, if not invisible. This blend of the familiar and strange may explain our tendency to seize upon Japan as the very image of the contemporary. Having apparently jumped straight from pre-modernism to postomodanizumu, its culture seems both bewilderingly fluid and monumentally static. Even Baudrillard, it has been said, would find the Japanese passion for simulacra a little unnerving; Derrida would be at a loss, for nothing remains to deconstruct.

Certainly the fiction of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most popular novelist by far, is awash with offbeat whimsy and state-of-the-art pastiche. A Wild Sheep Chase (published here in 1990) borrows the form of a Chandleresque detective story for the tale of a hunt for a mutant Manchurian sheep with the ability to inhabit people’s minds. Having possessed (or ‘sheeped’) a soldier in the Imperial Army in the Thirties, it has turned him into an underworld Boss whose extensive outreach includes most of the public relations industry and a faction in the Conservative Party. But now the Boss is in a coma, and the malevolent ovine mastermind has gone missing. A copywriter, whose interests run to Sixties pop, Ideologie Germanica and Sherlock Holmes, is made an offer he can’t refuse. Helped by a girl with supernatural ears and a deranged deserter from the last war disguised in a sheep suit (drawing included), he eventually tracks down the ghost of his old friend, the Rat, who has sacrificed himself to eliminate the sheep. Murakami’s hunch-playing detective wears the mantle of Philip Marlowe a little self-consciously. He’s memorised the murderer’s name in every Ellery Queen mystery, advises people to ‘tell it to me straight, because that’s my favourite angle,’ and specialises in the sardonic wisecrack (a mother and child ‘look like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks’). Throughout he maintains an understandable scepticism: ‘this has all got to be, patently, the most unbelievable, the most ridiculous story I have ever heard.’

If Sheep demonstrated Murakami’s characteristically daft but deft mixture of inconsequence and genre-play, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is as exuberantly unlikely as its title. Set in Tokyo just five minutes into the future, this double-decker narrative divides into the distinct genres of Science Fiction and fantasy. In one, a bemused security agent, hired by a mad old scientist and his beautiful granddaughter, is caught up in a high-tech information-war; while in the other, a newcomer to the city at the end of the world finds himself living among unicorns and separated from his protesting shadow.

The parallel stories are narrated in alternate chapters, the first by a Calcutec, a switchblade-carrying agent whose job is to ‘launder’ or mnemonically encrypt sensitive data. He shuffles figures from one side of his brain to another by way of a mysterious interior world planted deep in his unconscious, a fiendish update of Matteo Ricci’s celebrated 16th-century memory palaces. Such precautions are necessary, for Calcutecs are engaged in a perpetual struggle with the Semiotecs, a data mafia who swoop on opponents in fake taxis, trimming off their crania with the buzz of a power saw. Our hero begins his Alice-like plunge into wonderland through an ordinary-seeming closet in a downtown skyscraper, which opens to reveal a waterfall and the laboratory of the world’s greatest neurophysiologist, the Professor. Laundering the Professor’s secret research data initiates a disastrous series of events. Fortunately the Calcutec, a fan of Humphrey Bogart, can meet every bizarre twist with the appropriate degree of hard-boiled cool:

The hulk glanced at the wasted door as casually as he might a popped wine cork, then turned his attentions toward me. No complex feelings here. He looked at me like I was another fixture. Would that I were.

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[*] Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction, edited by Alfred Birnbaum, Kodansha International, £13.95, 1991, 4 7700 1543 7. New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan, edited by Helen Mitsios, introduction by Jay McInerney, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991, $18.95, 0 87113 426 8.