Inspiring Older Readers
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
So another year slips past and once again, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of his fans, Haruki Murakami doesn’t get the Nobel prize for literature. I’m a huge fan of his and perhaps I’m in the minority by being perversely pleased that he hasn’t had the recognition – maybe it will keep him poised on the outer edge of the establishment rather than getting dragged into its dark heart.
As a reader of Murakami over the years I’ve come to expect the unexpected and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The Strange Library is certainly one of his more outrageous short fantasy excursions and it’s one that makes the hairs on the nape of your neck crawl. It’s a heady concoction of demonic Japanese and Western fairy tale, Kafka and Edward Gorey that combines with oblique, mudane or even every day domestic images to take you down a perverse Alice in Wonderland rabbit-hole.
A young man returns books to the library and rather randomly enquires after other books on Ottoman Empire tax affairs. Suddenly he’s escorted to the unvisited bowels of the library by a sinister librarian-cum-jailer who locks him up and forces him to read and memorise the books he’s requested. He is ‘guarded’ reluctantly by a man-creature dressed entirely in a sheep’s pelt who hates the jailer and reveals that real plan will involve the eating of the young man’s brains once they are full of information.
During his captivity he is visited by a mysterious beautiful young woman who appears to be able to get into the cell via a crack in the door and she brings him food and hope. The young woman may or may not be the spirit of the young man’s pet starling.
The young man and the sheep creature escape the library before his brains are devoured only to return home and find his mother dying and his starling gone from the cage. All alone in the world he resolves never to return to that library.
What does all this mean? I have no idea and I’m not sure that this matters at the rational or conscious level. The story works at the level of a Grimm fairy tale or a Surrealist painting where fantasy and reality collide and you’re never sure what can be grasped as solid. Working in combination with the images that sometimes dominate the page, the tale works at the subliminal level and draws on architypes and universal symbols to make its meaning.
Reading it is as intangible as a dream and it functions like a dream too – leaving an impression, an uneasy sense of the boundaries between this world and others and leaves you questioning what is good and what is bad.
Murakami’s mastery of what has been called magical realism and his ability slip seamlessly into telling a rational, straight narrative in his next book makes every new publication potentially thrilling. I want him to stay strange and maybe, just maybe, by staying out of the clutches of the Nobel committee he’ll be able to do that.