Review: The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami

91S4vBGYdUL>>Published: December 2014

It was a real sheepskin, and it covered every inch of the sheep man’s body. There was an opening for the face, however, through which peeped a friendly pair of eyes. The costume suited him well. The sheep man looked at me for a moment; then his eyes shifted to the three books in my hand.

“Holy moly, you came here to read, for real?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

“You mean you really and truly came to read those books?”

There was something strange about the sheep man’s way of speaking. I found myself at a loss for words.

“Come on, out with it,” the old man demanded. “You came here to read, is that not a fact? Give him a straight answer.”

“Yes. I came here to read.”

“You heard him,” the old man crowed.

“But, sir,” said the sheep man. “He’s only a kid.”

“Silence!” thundered the old man. He drew a willow switch from his back pocket and whipped the sheep man across the face. “Take him to the Reading Room now!”

***

Earlier this year, Haruki Murakami released Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage to somewhat tepid response (not poor, just not ravenous). This was especially surprising, as his previous book—2011’s 1Q84—was such a success. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was by no means a bad book. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoyed it. However, it was noticeably lacking in the usual authorial staples: a plethora of cats, spaghetti, jazz, and magical, otherworldly phenomena. By virtue of its deliberately “grey” protagonist, the novel itself seemed to be missing something just that little bit… surreal.

Fortunately, 2014 brings us not one new Murakami but two.

The Strange Library is far and away the author’s shortest work—not even a novella but a novelette. The story is that of a nameless teenage protagonist who seeks to check out books from, well, a very strange library, only to become trapped within its labyrinthine subterranean levels. Our timid, non-confrontational hero is jailed in a “Reading Room” by the mercurial, cannibalistic overseer, who gives him one month to read and memorize three books on how taxes were done in the Ottoman Empire. Why? Because then his brain will be juicy and full of knowledge—a delicacy—at which point, “The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.”

Given the book’s brisk length, to say anything more of the plot would be to give away too much.

There are only a handful of characters in The Strange Library, all broadly sketched: our teenage hero; an aloof, briefly seen librarian; the cannibalistic old man; the sheep man (a returning favourite); and a young woman with no voice who speaks to the protagonist with her hands (and in a lovely blue font). The curious young woman is an unknown entity in the bowels of the library, and may or may not occupy the same physical space as the sheep man, though on another plane of sorts.

Really there’s not that much more to say about the book. It’s a charming return to form that’s over all too quickly, yet also feels just long enough. I went into The Strange Library expecting to see an experiment—a surreal snapshot of a place and an idea the author felt necessary to isolate, rather than release as part of a larger narrative or a short fiction collection. What I got instead felt a little like a greatest hits, pulling a number of Murakami’s quirks into a blender and giving them a quick spin. That’s not a dig, by the way. I did thoroughly enjoy this book, though it was only on its final page, with its smaller font—a whispered truth in a book of lies and labyrinths—that I felt the weight of loneliness at the narrative’s core.

And as a small aside, the construction of The Strange Library is artful and elegant, with an unconventionally fastened cover and beautiful full-colour images throughout. I would love to see more novellas and novelettes get similar treatment. For fans, this is a must—a perfect treat at the end of the year. For Murakami newcomers, The Strange Library is but a taste of his weird, wonderful worlds.

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