Friday, March 13, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Today's post will be on the extremely short story (only 96 pages, half of which are covered in pictures) by Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library. Those of you that are more used to reading his longer works, such as 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, will most likely be as bewildered as I was when finished The Strange Library in under 30 minutes. But even though it is incredibly short, almost to the point of being disorienting, it is still very much a Murakami.

The Situation: A young boy is visiting the library like he has done many times before. Everything is as it should be, since he is returning books before their due date, as his mother taught him to do, and is now looking for something new to read. The girl at the front desk is someone he has never seen before, but when he tells her he is looking for something else to read, she gives him directions to room 107. Upon finding and entering room 107, the boy encounters an old man who is insistent on finding the boy something to read and directing him to the Reading Room. The boy really only wanted to check out more books and then go home to his waiting mother, but the old man is so forceful, that the boy finds himself following him into the library basement, with books he really has no interest in reading.

The Problem: It turns out that the Reading Room is little more than a jail cell, and if the boy doesn't memorize everything that is in the three massive books that the old man gave him by the end of one month, he'll have his brains eaten out. A sheep-man that serves as the boys jailer and brings him his meals explains that this kind of thing happens in libraries all of the time. The boy knows he has no hope of memorizing everything in the books. And even if he were to manage an escape, there is no way he could navigate the massive labyrinth that led to the library's basement, and make it bake to his anxious mother.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction short story with elements of fantasy, much like many of Murakami's stories. Also similar to many of the author's other stories is the presence of a young male narrator and protagonist; a mysterious and beautiful girl who is somehow part of this world, but also not; an instance of being held against one's will, though not painfully; strange animals; and of course, delicious food described in detail. As I mentioned, the entire story is only 96 pages long, half of which are filled with pictures. And the text on the other half is not in the standard format of your usual mass market paperback. The font is bigger, there are less lines on the page, and less words in a line. So basically, the book is extremely short, but still very Murakami. And as usual, by the end, it isn't clear to the reader, or even the young narrator, what was real and what was imagined. I am sure there is some social commentary to be found in the fact that the boy is held prisoner in the basement of a struggling library, being forced to read about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Many readers out there would love the chance to live in a library, although being forced to read and memorize books on a specific subject at the threat of having our brains eaten is not the way they'd want to get it. 

My Verdict: I would have settled for being able to pick up a Murakami book and finish it within a week of starting it, much less a half hour. Fans of Murakami may end up a little torn on this one. On the one hand, it is a great short story. But on the other hand, it is a short story coming from someone that we know is capable of so much when he takes the time to write out 500+ pages of story. After finishing The Strange Library, I had to wonder in what different kind of avenues this story could have been taken if it was at least as long as Kafka on the Shore. It almost would have been better if Murakami wasn't known for his previous work. But then again, if Murakami wasn't known for his other books, would he have been able to get away with publishing something like this? Either way, Murakami fans should pick this book up. The illustrations alone make the short story worth the 30 minutes it takes to read it.

Favorite Moment: When the young boy is given homemade fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts made by the sheep-man.   

Favorite Character: At first it seems as if the sheep-man is just a lackey for the evil old man, but he proves to be incredibly helpful. Plus, he makes doughnuts.

Recommended Reading: A Murakami book that will most certainly take more then 30 minutes to read is 1Q84. But if you're not in the mood for a three-part epic adventure, I would recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although it is still a door stop at 607 pages.

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