I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami before this novella, not for any real particular reason other than perhaps that not many of my friends have talked about him, so I never felt a strong pull to pick up one of his books. Well, that, and probably the length of his novels subconsciously forced me away from his books. So when I saw The Strange Library near the cash register at Tattered Cover over Christmastime, I grabbed it, figuring there wouldn’t be any time like the present to check out Murakami and his “magical realism.”
I don’t know what “magical realism” means, exactly, other than that’s how Amazon labels Murakami’s writing. But it seems fitting for this story. We come into the life of an unnamed protagonist as he stops by the local library after school to return some books. Immediately we see that this is an unusual place, for when he asks to check out more books he is told to go “turn right at the bottom of the stairs Go straight down the corridor to Room 107.” I, for one, would have turned and gone the other direction. Our hero, though, only comments that he never knew the library had a basement.
The nameless, ageless narrator (all we know is that he is a “child” and that he is in school; his obvious attachment to his mother hints at him being young, but throughout we get impressions that, while he may be young, he is mature for his age) requests some books about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire (a strange topic if there ever was one). From there we enter the world of “magical realism”: A jail cell, a mysterious girl who drifts between the real-world and the book-world, a man in sheep’s clothing (“it was real sheepskin, and covered every inch of the sheep man’s body … there was a short tail attached to the back of the sheep man’s outfit that bounced from side to side with each step, like a pendulum”), and a man who is so old that he could likely be past his time here on earth. A brief and odd - and, at times, disconcerting - tale unwinds. It's full of short, crisp sentences that hide and reveal more than one could think. The story is possibly warning us of the perils of capitalism or modernism, or of the dangers of authoritarianism. Or, it’s just a surreal tale; a story that is just meant to be a story and not an allegory. As this was my first encounter with Murakami, I’m not sure exactly what to make of it. (The tale has been spinning back and forth in my mind for almost a week now.) But I do know that I enjoyed the novella, and that his recent books (IQ84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) have been added to my reading lists.
A note about the design: this publication has art design by Chip Kidd. “Illustrated by” is the not the word to use, for Kidd’s artwork is more of the collage type and is influenced by impressions of the story at hand. His artwork adds to the tale but is not distracting; the surreal nature impacted me as I was reading the story and improves the overall package. (It also helps justify the $18 cover price.) There were a few pages where I definitely took pause to further absorb the design. There was recently an article in the New Yorker about Kidd’s work on this novella; I encourage you to read it.
It won’t take you very long to read The Strange Library. I think I finished it in an hour or two, stretched out over the course of two rides on the Long Island Rail Road. I actually read it a second time, after about a week, to pick up on new things that I missed the first time. My guess is that if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy this, and if you're like me and you’ve never read him before, this is an excellent place to start.