Saturday 31 January 2015

'The Strange Library' by Haruki Murakami (Review)

I thought that I had my January in Japan reading fairly well regulated this year, a mixture of library choices, review copies and shelf dwellers, some modern, some classic and some plain old.  However, when you get a text from the library, informing you that a book you weren't expecting to arrive for some months is waiting for you at the local branch, well, there's nothing for it but to make a gap in your schedule and cram one more book into the month.

So, have I saved the best for last, or will JiJ end on a sour note?  Let's take a trip to the library and find out...

The Strange Library (translated by Ted Goossen) is the latest Haruki Murakami work to arrive in English, coming a matter of months after the (fairly) triumphant appearance of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.  It's a little different to most of what we've seen before, a children's story accompanied by a range of illustrations (mostly sourced from old library books), but the style is unmistakeably Murakami, and we even get to run into an old friend :)

It all begins when a young boy goes into his local library, hoping to drop a few books off and pick up some more.  He is told to go down to the basement, where a stern old man informs him that his chosen books can't be taken out and must be read in the library.  The boy (an obedient child) follows the man down some more stairs towards the reading room - too late does he realise that he's actually being locked in a prison cell...

Anyone hoping for another full-scale novel will be disappointed by The Strange Library, but (hopefully) most people will have been aware of what was coming and will enjoy it for what it is.  Murakami has written several of these illustrated stories, with many already appearing in various European languages (I read a fan-translation of one, The Sheep Man's Christmas, a couple of years back), but this is the first time that any have made it into English publication.  While it smacks a little of profiteering to publish a book aimed at adults which takes about twenty minutes to read, I suspect that even for this morsel the rights weren't all that cheap ;)

The story itself is entertaining, and rather tongue in cheek too.  The boy is a frustratingly passive figure, walking happily into disaster just because people are telling him too (I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere...), and Murakami pokes fun at him along the way.  The books he returns to the library (How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd) are typical Murakami jokes, and I can't really imagine a real-life schoolboy musing about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire...

And speaking of shepherds, The Strange Library sees a welcome appearance by a rather familiar figure:
"Finally, we reached the bottom of the staircase.  I could see a glimmer farther in, just a feeble glow, really, but still strong enough to make my eyes hurt after the long darkness.  Someone approached me from the back of the room and took my hand.  A small man clad in the skin of a sheep."
pp.17/8 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
Yes, the sheep man is back (I believe he's a frequent flier in Murakami's children's stories), and while he doesn't have the sinister air, or idiosyncratic speech patterns, of the character encountered in A Wild Sheep Chase, it's definitely the same guide through the bizarre parallel Murakamian underworld.

There's a need for this familiar face, though, as the book can get a little dark at times.  The gruff man is a fairly frightening, if cartoonish, protagonist, with a terrible secret kept in the labyrinth beneath the library.  The sheep man, a reluctant accomplice, fills the boy in on the true nature of libraries:
     "But, hey, this kind of thing's going on in libraries everywhere, you know.  More or less, that is."
     This news staggered me.  "In libraries everywhere?" I stammered.
     "If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?" (p.26)
And there you were thinking that librarians were benevolent forces for good, educating you all out of the kindness of their hearts.  I'll leave you to read the book and find out just exactly what their ulterior motive is...

Despite the mortal peril the boy finds himself in, though, this is a Murakami book, and there's always time to relax.  While you and I would be in a panic over the impending danger, the boy is able to get sidetracked by the strangest of topics, whether it's the book on Ottoman tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir or the doughnuts he's been brought to eat:
     "This is the best doughnut I've ever eaten," I said.
     "I just finished frying them up," said the sheep man.  "I make them from scratch, you know."
     "I bet if you opened a doughnut shop, it'd be a big hit.
     "Yeah, I've thought about that myself.  How great that'd be."
     "I know you could do it." (p.40)
Wait a minute - impending doom, danger?  Talk about Stockholm Syndrome...

The Strange Library may just be a short story for kids, but it's immensely entertaining, and I'd love to read more of the same.  It's a book which uses a fairy-tale structure to pay homage to libraries and praise the ability of books to allow us to escape our humdrum lives.  Goossen's translation beautifully captures the ludicrous, yet straight-faced style, a fact which bodes well for his retranslations of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, coming later this year.

As sweet as The Strange Library is, it wouldn't be a Murakami book without a poignant twist, and on this front it certainly delivers.  Just when you think that you're on top of what the book is trying to do, you discover that there's a subtle undertone, one which only becomes apparent in the last few lines.  It may not be the best book I've tried for January in Japan this time around, but it's certainly a fitting book to round the event off - I highly recommend that you go and get a copy from your library.

Just promise me, whatever you do - don't go down to the basement...