Saturday, February 11, 2006

'Who can sleep with such inexpressibleness?'

So much of Haruki Murakami's novel A Wild Sheep Chase is so clever, witty, and charming, it comes as a shock when things get dark. Here's the unnamed narrator, describing his lone encounter with actual sheep:
The instant I entered the sheep house, all two hundred sheep turned in my direction. Half the sheep stood, the other half lay on the hay spread over their pen floors. Their eyes were an unnatural blue, looking like tiny wellsprings flowing from the sides of their faces. They shone like glass eyes which reflected light from straight on. They all stared at me. Not one budged. A few continued munching away on the grass in their mouths, but there was no other sound. A few, their heads protruding from their pens, had stopped drinking water and had frozen in place, fixing their eyes on me. They seemed to think as a group. Had my standing in the entrance momentarily interrupted their unified thinking? Everything stopped, all judgement on hold. It took a move by me to restart their mental processes...

- p. 257-8
That passage made me think of a conductor standing up in front of an orchestra for the first time - though I don't want to equate myself and my fellow musicians with sheep! The simple cadences of Murakami's writing seem to lead the reader to a series of imaginative leaps, like a conductor inspiring an orchestra to find new poetry and meaning in a familiar score. For his part, Murakami is often at his most poetic on the most mundane subjects:
I switched off the television and toppled over onto the bed with my shoes still on. All alone, I stared up at the stain-blotched ceiling. Reminders of persons long dead and forgotten.

The room changed colors to the pule of neon lights. My watch ticked away by my ear. I undid the band and tossed it onto the floor. Traffic sounds came in soft chorus, layer upon layer. I tried to sleep, but without success. Who can sleep with such inexpressibleness?

- p. 350
Of course, much more happens than just lying in bed and looking into the eyes of sheep - there is a tone though, cool, thoughtful, a little distant and yet oddly expressive, which sustains throughout. There is very little wild chasing, and so maybe the title is itself a part of the pervasive irony. The narrator has been assigned a quest, to find one particular sheep which may or may not exist somewhere in Japan. He is not especially enthusiastic in the pursuit of that sheep - though it does provide an excuse for a month-long vacation with his (also unnamed) girlfriend, who has some mysterious special powers, along with extraordinarily beautiful ears.

The sheep he seeks seems also to be magical, capable of possessing people and granting them special abilities:
"The sheep that enters a body is thought to be immortal. And so too the person who hosts the sheep is thought to become immortal. However, should the sheep escape, the immortality goes. It's all up to the sheep. If the sheep likes its host, it'll stay for decades. If not - zip! - it's gone. People abandoned by sheep are called the 'sheepless.' In other words, people like me."

Chomp, chomp.

- p. 222
This character, known as 'The Sheep Professor,' is only the first to be inhabited by the magical sheep, and discovering its whereabouts is no easy task. Just when it seems he is about to find it, the narrator loses his girlfriend and comes to a startling realization about the mission he's been assigned. Girlfriends in Murakami novels have a tendency to disappear suddenly and completely, just like that mystical sheep, leaving their partners as dejected and alone as the 'sheepless.'

In fact, I began to see this fickle, possessive, and elusive sheep as a symbolic stand-in for the infatuation of love itself. There is a feature article in the current National Geographic Magazine which traces the chemical processes of love's early stages:
What [anthropologist Helen] Fisher saw fascinated her. When each subject looked at his or her loved one, the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure—the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus—lit up. What excited Fisher most was not so much finding a location, an address, for love as tracing its specific chemical pathways. Love lights up the caudate nucleus because it is home to a dense spread of receptors for a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which Fisher came to think of as part of our own endogenous love potion. In the right proportions, dopamine creates intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards. It is why, when you are newly in love, you can stay up all night, watch the sun rise, run a race, ski fast down a slope ordinarily too steep for your skill. Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive, and sometimes you don't.
In A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami has one character describe the rapture of sheep-possession in a similar light:
"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."

- p. 335
The narrator falls very much in love, though with a girl rather than a sheep. It is amusing to watch as he adores his girlfriend's perfect ears; it is even more heartbreaking to watch him struggle with losing her. The sheep has a similar effect on its hosts - they become obsessed with it, and all the powers it carries, only to realize that rather than using those powers, they have been used by the sheep. And in this novel there is no happy reconciliation for the sheepless, or the love-less:
"What happened to her?"

"She's okay. Perfectly well," said the Rat. "Only there's nothing that you'd find attractive in her anymore. Sad, but that's how it is."

"How's that?"

"It's gone. Evaporated. Whatever it was she had, it's not there anymore."

I couldn't bring myself to say anything.

- p. 338
Anyone who has had his caudate nucleus lit up brilliantly, only to fade completely, can sympathize with the pain of the narrator's loss. There is a beautiful moment in the third movement of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, also very much a work about infatuation and loss. A simple tune on an English horn - a shepherd's theme, in fact - is echoed in the distance at the beginning of the movement, then develops into a lovely theme of increasing longing and passion. At the end, in good classical form, the shepherd's theme returns. But this time it is answered only by silence, and the rumble of an approaching storm.

We've all heard that saying 'Tis better to have loved and lost...', but I think that better or worse is hardly the point. Love changes us, it makes us feel differently, think differently, maybe it even reorganizes the chemical processes in our brains. In the end, it's difficult to calculate what we have gained by loving, but impossible to express what we have lost without it!

1 comment:

Smita said...

he is a beautiful writer. Love the fact that his books are like brown studies - the kind that we often drift into when we are staring into space but forget about the moment we are jerked back to reality