HARUKI Murakami has a knack for taking mundane situations and transforming them into feats of fantastical journeys of both physical and psychological nature. And he does just that in his short story The Strange Library which is beautifully published in hardcover with glossy paper. The book is nicely translated from Japanese into English by Ted Goossen.
The book itself is a piece of art; it contains various beautiful pictures which are not illustrations of the story, but rather an integral part of the narrative. Most of these pictures were selected from books previously penned by the author and other writers, and integrated into the plot. It is this inter-textual quality of the tale that makes it more attractive than regularly illustrated books.
The Strange Library follows an unnamed young boy who, on a sudden whim, decides to visit the city library to read up on the tax system of the Ottoman Empire. He feels that ever since he was bitten by a large black dog he has changed in a peculiar way but he doesn’t know the exact nature of this change: “my mind got scrambled since the black dog bit me, and it hasn’t been quite right since”. Also, ever since that accident, his mother has become overprotective of him; and he, in turn, does not want to upset her in any way. It is revealed that the boy has a pet, Starling, whom he seems to cherish above all. The protagonist believes that he has a natural disposition to please people; he is “the type of boy who naturally followed orders”. When this innocent young boy enters the library looking for books on the Ottoman tax system, he unwittingly sets foot into a strange world.
The boy visits the library on regular basis: “ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up”. The fact that it is a library — a place that is supposed to offer us knowledge and enlightenment — which traps the protagonist in a dark underground labyrinth challenges the reliability of truth and rational knowledge. “Why did something like this have to happen to me? All I did was go to the library to borrow some books”, the boy asks.
Stylistically, the story is written in the manner of children’s stories but thematically it is much more sinister and darker. We have all the elements of a cautionary tale: a culpable young boy, a strange and dangerous world and a deceptive old man. It’s a story for adults disguised as children’s fiction because Murakami’s message isn’t moral but philosophical.
We can never know what dangers can creep into seemingly safe and innocent places such as a library. “The world follows its own course… Each possesses his own thoughts, each treads his own path”. The attraction of Murakami’s unique style lies in its inherent transgressive and subversive nature which offers readers a fleeting escape from the drab ‘real’ world.
Murakami questions the very existence of our world, and shows us how we all live in our own distinct worlds that occasionally become entangled, disturbing the apparently rational balance that serves as an anchor for our physical selves. The categories of real and fantastical are brought under question, creating a third category where both of these worlds coincide. Whether this third world exists in physical form or the mind of the perceiver is left to the imagination of the readers.
This story may read like a children’s tale but Murakami’s interpretation of human fear is more in accordance with adult literature. Deep inside, the boy is terrified that his mind had been addled ever since he was bitten by the black dog. It is by slipping in these doubts of the main characters about the reality of their experiences that Murakami creates a shifting reality that our biggest fears might leave the deepest recesses of our subconscious mind and become ‘real’ in an alternative reality. But The Strange Library also indicates that love such as that of the boy’s for his mother and his pet, for instance, can give us strength to face the challenges brought on by any parallel world, no matter how dangerous.
I enjoyed reading this beautiful little book, but if I revisit it would be mainly for the delightful visual experience that it offers. If the book had been published in the usual way, with no added pictures, I don’t think I would have bought it because all the themes of The Strange Library have already been handled in great detail in Murakami’s previous works. For instance, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World makes use of this theme of subjective reality to highlight that how we experience the world is always relative. While in this story, too, Murakami uses the moon as a motif for blurred boundaries between different worlds, his exploration of this brilliant idea is at its best in 1Q84. However, for devoted readers of Murakami The Strange Library is a collector’s item offering everything they love about him in a pretty little package.
The Strange Library
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Ted Goossen
Illustrated by Chip Kidd
Harvill Secker, UK