Jan 27, 2015

[Books] The Strange Library

Given all the press around Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage after its release, it became a little too easy for The Strange Library to escape notice. And given its rather unusual format, it also feels very different from his other releases. And I'm not just talking about it's relatively short length or its creative cover design.

To be fair, The Strange Library isn't exactly a new book - what makes it feel "new" to the rest of the world is the fact that it was only released in English last year. The original story itself had been published in 2005, so as usual we're all playing catch-up with Japan. It's just not immediately apparent why it took so long for an English translation to be released for this particular book.

Then again, it's not like it's easy to find his earliest works including Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, the first two books of his Trilogy of the Rat series of books. No matter how popular an author you are, I guess it's still up to the publishers to figure out an effective strategy for such international releases.

Synopsis: The Strange Library is a children's novella written by Haruki Murakami. It's only 96 pages long and it actually features images throughout the book as a way to add color to the story. The highly creative cover and layout was designed by Chip Kidd.

The book is told first person perspective style by a young boy. Things start out with him returning some books to the library as normal given he's a fairly avid reader and was taught to utilize the library to look up things that he didn't know or understand. But while there, he decides to look into the history of tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, which is quite the obscure random topic for a boy too look into. The librarian directs him to Room 107 to find the information he is looking for.

There he meets a strange librarian who can only be described as an older balding man. He leads our protagonist deeper into the library under the guise of showing him the books that he needs, but soon the boy finds himself a prisoner of the strange librarian. The old man plans on consuming his fact-filled brain once he has completed reading three more books while he is imprisoned. Now trapped with only the Sheep Man jailer as company, our young hero needs to find a way to escape the library and get back home to his mother.

It wasn only after I had read this book that I had discovered that it was being billed as a children's novella. Given Haruki Murakami's body of work. it's not exactly easy to distinguish what makes this book more for children than for older readers apart from the relative brevity of the story and of course the fact that it contains no adult themes like sex and drinking. Instead we have a rather chilling tale that feels a bit more like something Neil Gaiman would create.

Then again, Murakami's novels are known for their imagery and their surrealist themes at times and thus this book sort of fits in with the rest of his fictional universe. And the inclusion of the Sheep Man, who is a recurring character across a number of his novels, was a truly surprise inclusion in this story. In other stories he was typically a sort of enigmatic guide that helps various protagonists. In this case, he too is a prisoner of sorts, forced to work for our cruel librarian. It was a shame that he was limited in this manner, but then it was still nice to "see" him again since we haven't really heard from him since books like Dance, Dance, Dance.

Given all this, the book remains to be quite the gripping tale, and the addition of the pop art style images only adds to the flavor of the book. At times the images seem merely illustrative - adapting themes of the story itself. But more often than not, the images seem a little creepy as they act as distorted representations of elements of the story as you go through.

I'm not quite sure if I would recommend this book for children, but then again we shouldn't sell kids short. It's quite the fascinating tale that could act as a modern fairy tale of sorts and it still features a young hero doing his best to save himself. And while he has help along the way, you're never really sure if it's enough to help him escape the labyrinth of the library and the librarian that holds him prisoner.

The Strange Library is a lovely Murakami experience that is beautiful both in terms of its words and the way the book was put together. It's a story that works for readers of most ages, provided you don't mind getting a little scared along the way. Thus the novella gets 4 fact-heavy books to read out of a possible 5.

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