Books

Review: Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library’

The Strange Library. Haruki Murakami. Art direction and design by Chip Kidd. Knopf. 96 pages. $18 in paper.
The Strange Library. Haruki Murakami. Art direction and design by Chip Kidd. Knopf. 96 pages. $18 in paper.

At the turn of the ’90s, a distinguished science fiction scholar and longtime editor of SF notables sat down with literary superstar Haruki Murakami. The Japanese writer was keen to talk about one of his literary passions: science fiction.

Murakami is, as it turns out, a lifelong SF fanboy who started reading the genre as a kid, and he hasn’t stopped. He said he’d read “all of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.” In his 20s, he added, Robert Silverberg’s Nightwing was his favorite novel in any literary category. This was long before imaginative fiction became the new chic.

Murakami’s conversation with the genre continues in everything he writes, including his latest work of fiction, a slim venture into fantasy that contains elements familiar to his fans. From The Wind-up Bird Chronicle through Kafka on the Shore and IQ84 on to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, the novelist explores the land of the plausible impossible, expanding territory staked out by counter-realist writers ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Philip K. Dick, who used invention to make sense of their lives in the physical world.

In The Strange Library, Murakami tests those boundaries with a slight, frustrating parable about a nameless boy trapped in a library for what seems like an eternity. His new shoes are beginning to bite. His mother expects him home in time for dinner, and it’s getting late. What will she do if he can’t make it home in time? Worry, of course.

“I’m always on time, and I never hand things in late,” the boy says in the opening pages, setting the bland, dreamy tone of his odd little story. “That’s the way my mother taught me. Shepherds are the same. If they don’t stick to their schedule, the sheep go completely bananas,” he explains, walking into the trap the author has set for him.

Billed as “A Late Addition to the Knopf 2014 Fall List,” this slim, beautifully designed volume is a new translation of a Murakami piece originally published in Japanese in 2005. Illustrations fill out large print text on its 96 pages. They include versions of artists’ work, including renderings of a sheepskin, one of an animal’s eye, origami images and elements from manga art, all organized and reproduced under the credit: “Art direction and design by Chip Kidd.”

Yes, The Strange Library is handsome. Perfect for coffee tables in the gladsome season. Advance readers’ copies of this yuletide offering arrived in mid-September in a format that looks a bit homemade, as though the translator or the designer had just come panting over the doorsill with the last piece. But the book is a beautiful finished product.

Now. When we left our story, our boy entered the cavernous library to return books and come out with something new to read. Referred to Room 107, he ends up in a sinister sub-sub-basement, terrified by the sound the door gives back when he knocks.

Ever-punctilious, he says, “I turned to run, but I didn’t actually take a step, even though I wanted to. That wasn’t the way I was raised. My mother taught me that if you knock on a door, you have to wait there until someone answers.”

His contact, a crusty old man whose head “looked like a mountain after a big forest fire,” dishes up three enormous, impenetrable tomes and locks our boy into an inner chamber where he’ll stay until he finishes reading them, down to the last word.

The Strange Library is a subteen’s No Exit, brightened by the appearance of a lovely, ethereal girl who brings food and may be in love with our boy, and the crusty old guy’s henchman, the shaggy Sheep Man, who brings lemonade and doughnuts on schedule, and in time, offers to help him break out.

But as in many great fantasies, our young man must beware of the Black Dog.

Completists will need this book, and readers looking for a light diversion in a heavily loaded holiday season should enjoy this existential vision of voracious readers whose to-do lists will go on expanding no matter how many titles they check off.

Kit Reed is a writer in Connecticut and the author of ‘The Story Until Now.’

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