The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
For someone who loves books and visits to the library, the title was catching indeed. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami is perhaps a lesser known work of the best-selling Japanese author. It was shelved in the library along with Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, which I had initially intended to read for the present prompt. But a chorus of coughs and a symphony of sneezes accompanied with the frenzy of fever marred my efforts to pick up that book and read it. It still lies on my shelf, waiting to be read.
So, I enter the world of Murakami with The Strange Library. And I am not disappointed at all!!!
The Strange Library is a very short tale of a young boy who visits the library to find answers to questions he doesn’t know. His mother, a recurrent figure in the boy’s thoughts, has asked him to satiate his curiosity there. But the visit turns into a nightmare as he is trapped by an old, grumpy and intolerant man. The boy who is tied and put in the cell, meets a beautiful girl and a sheep man in the story.
The plot moves fast. Absurdity rules. If you try to find logic or rationality in the story, you will be left baffled. Is the plot a dream the protagonist has? Or is it a nightmare he goes through in real life? Well, even he doesn’t know. He gains knowledge, but loses freedom. When he tries to escape, he loses his shoes and muses that his mother will be very upset. It is a topsy-turvy world which takes you into darkness and leaves you there.
The futility of all efforts, the blurring of the real and all that is touted ‘non-real’ is a dominant theme in the book.
The surreal humor of Murakami’s work is creepy and pricks you to the core. The boy is asked to cram the books so that his brain becomes “juicy” and “creamy” and the old man can enjoy feasting on it. The sheep man, although not tied physically, is still fettered. It is reminiscent of Pozzo and Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – while the latter are physically tied, the question remains – who is bound to whom?
The nature of repressive relationships is probed through a questioning of voluntary (or is it forced?) confinement. The fact that the man wears ‘sheep’ clothing, literally, can have multiple connotations. Sheep as a symbol, within Japanese culture, and outside it, is open to analysis, and I feel gels well with the plot as a whole.
The mysterious girl in The Strange Library is an Eve-like force. She is the way out, it seems. Is she the temptress? Is she a rebel? Does she exist as part of the boy’s subconscious world? On being asked, she replies,
“So, just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all.”
The library, the old man, the books that are not ‘allowed’ outside the library’s precincts, the mother whose commands the boy obeys, the ‘sheep’-man – these are significant tropes that interrogate knowledge, its production and its control. Inherent in the plot is the incessant thrust they impose, the illogicality they dissipate, the darkness they promote. Institutions and the protocols they follow are something that inhibit imagination and freedom – they retard, they threaten to devour. The girl slips through the invisible gaps. It is interesting that Murakami has chosen a girl as the defiant trope.
The book was published in 2014 and I am confused as to which genre it belongs to. I have seen it as being labeled ‘a children’s novella’ but for me, it is far from that. It belongs very much to the existential, post-modernist, absurdist, magic-realist genre of writers like Kafka and Borges. And I would not recommend it for children at all!!!
The illustrations are a crucial part of the narrative. They seem to distract the reader from the ominous narrative at first glance. But they display a murkiness of their own, which complements, in my view, the narrative as a whole.
I am left intrigued by this short piece of Murakami and I am eager to pick up his next work. I have not dealt with the numerous influences that seem to work here. But it would be interesting to read Kafka and Borges together with Murakami and do a comparative reading. Borges’s Dream, the short prose poem can be a good starting point. For now, I will end with Murakami’s gripping quote from Kafka on the Shore
“If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.”
I will remember Murakami for a long time, I am sure.
I have written this post for guest blogging with Book Reviews for #shalzmojosays
Sunaina Sharma is a stay-at-home mother of two kids. She holds an M.Phil in English Literature from India and maintains blogs that go by the name When I Stopped to Smell a Rose ( istoppedtosmellarose.blogspot.com )and Mere Desh Ki Mitti (meredeshkimitti.wordpress.com). Sunaina writes short stories, poems and creative non-fiction. She takes inspiration from her kids and loves to read a good book. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two kids. Life gives her ideas to write – it might be a kind gesture, a look of love, a tear-drop, a painting lying in a corner, or an old couple walking hand in hand – they stimulate her to pick up the pen.