My favorite audiobook of 2006

In an earlier post, I said I’d write about my favorite audiobook of the past year. That honor easily goes to Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,” as read by Rupert Degas for the Naxos Audiobooks company.

For a review of the audiobook as well as “A Wild Sheep Chase,” click “more.”

windup.jpg “A Wild Sheep Chase” by Haruki Murakami. Read by Rupert Degas. Unabridged; 8 CDs; 9.5 hours. Naxos Audio Books. $57.98.

“The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” by Murakami. Read by Degas. Unabridged; 21 CDs; 26 hours. Naxos Audio Books. $141.98.

2006 was the year of Haruki Murakami. In October, he received the $10,000 Franz Kafka Prize in Prague, Czech Republic (two previous winners have gone on to win the Noble Prize). In September, he received the $45,000 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for his collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.”

His short stories (many have appeared in The New Yorker magazine) have always been engaging, quick interludes into his often bizarre imagination. His novels, on the other hand, aren’t always as easily accessible, even though they usually begin with a likable enough protagonist. Often, this is an unmoored Japanese man who soon finds himself in utterly surreal situations.

That’s what makes these two gorgeous audio versions so welcoming and compelling. Degas does a masterful job of bringing dozens of unique characters alive.

In “Wild Sheep Chase,” a young advertising executive in Tokyo finds his company threatened by a mysterious man who wants him to find a sheep that was in a photograph of a mountain landscape, which the executive had used in a newsletter, or else he would destroy the company.

This sheep chase leads him to the northern island of Hokkaido and into a supernatural mystery of a seemingly immortal, evil sheep who could enter peoples’ bodies and drive them toward fulfilling the sheep’s dreams of world dominion.

First published in Japan in 1982 and translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum in 1989, “Sheep Chase” includes a love affair with a woman with erotic ears, a mad sheep professor and surreal landscapes, all narrated in a voice by Degas that suggests a dead-pan private eye, to give the strange book a patina of film noir. And though the quest is more compelling than the conclusion, the book as a whole is captivating, and, at times, silly (such as long discourses on the love-interest’s ears).

“Wind-up Bird Chronicle,” published in Japan in 1995 and translated into English by Jay Rubin in 1997, takes some of the similar themes of “Sheep Chase” and works with them on broader, deeper and stranger levels.

In the book, an unemployed 30-something man, Toru Okada, first loses his cat and then his wife, and then finds himself encountering mysterious people — in his neighborhood and beyond — who seem to possess knowledge of supernatural realms, of foretelling and of strange healing powers.

Like the “Sheep Chase” protagonist, Toru is also on a quest. But his quest for his wife takes him to places at once stranger and deeper. In the earlier novel, for example, the war in Asia in the 1930s is incidental to the tale told by a madman, called the “Sheep Professor,” who says the titular sheep had possessed him when he was in Manchuria to study wool production to help the Japanese military develop warmer uniforms.

The later novel includes much more than a glancing reference to World War II.

Toru befriends a veteran whose stories of World War II include imprisonment by the Soviets, being tossed down a dry well to starve to death and, in an all-too-vivid and troubling scene, watching a man being skinned alive.

These stories haunt Toru, and will surely haunt the audiobook’s listeners. It also is easy enough to see Toru, a regular guy, as a stand-in for most Japanese, who would also no doubt be haunted by such stories from the past.

Widely regarded as Murakami’s masterpiece, “Wind-up Bird” also includes corrupt politicians, a precocious teenager who is out of school for mysterious reasons, a woman who tries to kill herself because she constantly feels pain, a dressmaker with healing powers, and a kind of haunted house in the neighborhood called “the hanging house” because its residents have all met terrible ends, including suicide.

As a performer, Degas maintains the novel’s compelling narrative drive — and Toru’s moments of bewilderment which often match the listeners’ — as well as a complex array of voices, including distinct female voices for four major characters.

Naxos and Degas have raised the bar for audio books with these two productions that emphasize what readers want: a close devotion to the words that enhances not only the pleasure of the fiction but also the understanding of the work (as opposed to sound effects or musical interludes that other companies use to tell a story, which can suggest that the words aren’t enough).

Also included with each audio book is a small booklet that includes a list of the audio tracks on each disc, a short biography of Murakami and an essay about the specific work.

Michael Janairo can be reached at 454-5629 or by e-mail at

Listen in

Naxos Audiobooks’ Web site offers samples of both “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” Go to the Web pages below for a listen:

“Wild Sheep Chase”

“Wind-up Bird Chronicle”


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