I’ve just finished teaching The Wild Sheep Chase in my Haruki Murakami first year seminar, and it feels like a different book following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of Heather Heyer. Murakami helps us understand why some young men are drawn to fascism.
As the title indicates, the novel involves haphazard wandering. The narrator, often referred to as Boku by critics (“boku” is the informal Japanese “I”), must find his friend Rat, who has made contact with a nefarious sheep god. This god has the potential, when it finds a promising host, to take over his mind, turning him into a charismatic authoritarian. In response, society follows his lead as so many sheep.
Genghis Khan, we are told, was taken over by the sheep god, and so was “the Boss,” a character in the book that controls Japan’s advertising industry and many of its politicians but who is now dying. The sheep god sees potential in Rat, Boku’s drinking buddy, and in a very circuitous way Rat has contacted Boku in an attempt to keep from being taken over.
To capture the lure of fascism, Murakami does two things. First, he shows the sterile life that Boku and Rat are living, a life tat consists of soul-sucking office jobs, a series of meaningless relationships, and a lot of drinking in bars. Rat describes the inner weakness that the sheep god feeds on:
Weakness is something that rots in the body. Like gangrene. I’ve felt that ever since I was a teenager. That’s why I was always on edige. There’s this something inside you that’s rotting away and you feel it all along. Can you understand what that’s like?
Rat goes on to describe this weakness as moral weakness, weakness of consciousness, and “weakness of existence itself.”
Extreme ideology takes advantage of this weakness, Rat tells Boku:
“What did the sheep want of you?”
Everything. The whole lock, stock, and barrel. My body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions…That’s the sort of stuff the sheep really goes for. The bastard’s got all sorts of feelers. It sticks them down your ears and nose like straws and sucks you dry.”
Rat doesn’t say exactly what vision the sheep uses as bait—perhaps the same vision that prompted Hitler’s followers to attend Nuremberg rallies—but he describes what if feels like:
Ând it was enough to draw me in. More than I’d care to confess. It’s not something I can explain in words. It’s like, well, like a blast furnace that smelts down everything it touches. A thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil. Give your body over to it and everything goes. Consciousness, values, emotions, pain, everything. Gone. What it comes closest to is a dynamo manifesting the vital force at the root of all life in one solitary point of the universe.
In other words, if you’re tormented by an aimless existence devoid of purpose, then a fascistic cleansing of the mind can resemble a blast furnace that smelts down all complexity into a single dynamo.
What saves Rat is, essentially, his acceptance of his flawed humanity. He knows he must reject fascism’s rush if he is to hold on to his soul:
“So why did you reject it?”…
“I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize? The same with having a beer with you…”
By the end of the novel, Boku too has turned down offer to work for the shadowy corporation. Instead, he enters into Rat’s plan to make sure the corporation falls apart and then gives his earnings to help establish a communal bar. (Murakami too ran a bar/jazz club before finding success as a novelist.) Boku gets back in touch with his feelings and, like a classic existential hero, faces the future bruised but free. Murakami concludes the novel,
I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.
The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.
It beats chanting “blood and soil” as you carry torches in support of Confederate statues.