[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
I don’t usually include photos of a book I’m reviewing, except for the cover, but part of the charm of Murakami’s odd little novella, The Strange Library, is its exquisite packaging. The book is published by Borzoi Books, an imprint of Knopf well known for unusual packaging, and they had a lot of fun with this one.
The Strange Library opens like a stenographer’s pad, at first. And then you turn the first page and you’re reading a conventional western book. Well, kind of — I mean, it’s Haruki Murakami, after all.
The book is filled with colorful illustrations that follow the themes of the story, as a lonely isolated boy returns some book to his local library, seeks some more, and finds himself in a strange and threatening place, with some character types we recognize from other Murakami stories. Despite the youth of the first-person narrator and the simplicity of the story, I do not think this is intended as a children’s book or for YA, although YA readers might enjoy it.
The boy is directed downstairs to an area of the library he has never seen before, and meets an unpleasant man he’s never met before. The boy has asked for books about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire (because he was randomly wondering about that on the way home from school), and the man provides three. The catch is that they cannot be removed from the library and must be read in a “reading room.” The boy follows the man through a deep maze, only to discover that he has been tricked and is now a captive of the man.
The boy’s jailor is a sheep-man, who fries up delicious doughnuts for the boy’s snack, and who soon becomes more of an ally than a guard. The boy has another ally, too, one who seems to appear in dreams, a girl who speaks in his mind. As the boy formulates a plan of escape, he worries about his mother, who is overprotective of him, and his pet starling. He hopes his mother remembers to feed it.
The dream-girl is not the only odd thing in the maze-prison, though. As the boy begins to read the books about tax collecting in the Ottoman Empire, he finds himself transported there, living the life of the tax collector whose memoir he is reading.
As I flipped the pages, I became the Turkish tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir, who walked the streets of Istanbul with a scimitar at his waist, collecting taxes. The air was filled with the scent of fruit and chickens, tobacco and coffee; it hung heavily over the city, like a stagnant river.
It’s hard to contemplate the meaning of this story without creating spoilers. It’s probably safe to say that Murakami is visiting some familiar themes here — alternate realities, dreams, isolation and madness. I can’t tell if the theory the sheep-man puts forth, that all libraries have these secret mazes that trap people for this particular purpose, is meant tongue in cheek (since it’s the opposite of what most of us think about libraries) or if it’s some kind of political statement by Murakami I’m just not astute enough to understand.
If you’re trying to encourage someone in your life to read Murakami, The Strange Library isn’t the book to start with! I think this lovely little artifact is tailor-made for people who already love this writer, because we will puzzle and exclaim over familiar tropes (birds, mazes, shoes and sheep-men). I also think people who like books as art objects, and manga fans, will find the illustrations and the design pleasing. Ted Goossen’s English translation is transparent, letting the writer’s strangeness shine through. I recommend this slim book to a select group of people, and you know who you are.