I really don’t know if Haruki Murakami is brilliant, or just plain weird.
I just finished his recently translated novella, The Strange Library, which, true to its name, was very strange. Apart from that, I really don’t know what to make of it.
The novella, The Strange Library, really more like a short story, tells of a boy, who, upon visiting his local library one day to return some books and to borrow new ones, finds himself imprisoned by a cruel old man, and guarded by a man dressed like a sheep. The boy, who had earlier asked the old man/librarian about books on Ottoman Tax Collection, on a whim, was given three heavy volumes and was told that the books were for internal use only and could not be checked out. The old man then proceeds to lead the boy down a labyrinthine set of corridors, through the vaulted door of the “reading room.” To the boy’s dismay, the reading room was nothing more than a prison, with him as the prisoner, complete with ball and chain attached to his legs. The old man tells the boy that he must read and memorize the books, and after a month, he will come back and test the boy’s knowledge.
The sheep man, though responsible for guarding the boy and giving him food is kind, and admits to the boy that at the end of that one month, the old man would return and eat the boy’s brains, being creamy and delicious due to all the knowledge it has absorbed. Shocked at the prospect of having his brains sucked out, the boy desperately thinks of a way to escape, but being unable to come up with ways of escaping, decides to just go ahead and read the books he was given.
On his first day, a very beautiful, but silent girl, brings him his food, a scrumptious gourmet meal. They boy asked the sheep man who the mysterious girl was, but was surprised when the sheep man tells him that he did not know of any girl, and that it was him who brought the boy his meal.
The boy, when not reading his book on the Ottoman Tax Collection System, tries to think of ways of escaping the strange prison, thinking that his mother must be crazy with worry about him by now. His plans are encouraged by the mysterious girl who continued to deliver his meals, as well as the sheep man, who wants to go along with him when he leaves. The mysterious girl and the sheep man promises that they would help the boy so that they can all escape together and leave the clutches of the cruel, old man.
But the story isn’t the only thing strange about this little novel. The book design is also strange. The cover is made up of two flaps that open up, and down, to reveal a second cover, wherein the first sentences of the book is written. The 2 flaps of the book are awkward, and there is nowhere else to put them except at the back of the book between the last page and the back cover. The book uses a typewriter font, and every other page is a picture which is slightly related to the story written on the opposite page. It’s 49 pages long, about half of which is the story, the other half pictures.
So, what is this story really about? Is about being kidnapped, or spirited away? Is it about obedience and responsibility; compassion and empathy? Is it about overcoming loneliness, or coping with loss? Does it teach you not to go into strange places and talking to strange people? Does it warn you what might happen if you try to trick your local librarian into looking for random, impossible books, or borrow books you aren’t really interested in? Is it an anti-libraries book? Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. Maybe it’s just the product of a strange writer’s strange imagination. I have absolutely no idea.
It took me less than hour to read this book, but it might take me a lifetime to understand any of it, if at all.
The Strange Library (2014) – Haruki Murakami
Alfred Knopf; 49 pages
Personal rating: 2/5