'The Strange Library' is a kid’s book, despite Murakami's reliance on allegories, semiotics, parables, and more

An adolescent boy drops into his neighborhood library to return some books and finds himself in a strange, charged landscape.

The Strange Library, By Haruki Murakami Knopf 96 pp, 32 color illustrations

Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Jean Sibelius, Simone de Beauvoir, M. C. Escher, Sigmund Freud, Lewis Carroll, Robert Bloch (that’s right, Hitchcock did not write "Psycho"), Edvard Munch, the meanest schoolteacher you can remember, Pan, Richard Feynman, a handful of specters and spooks and shades and demons, a world-famous spelunker, a renowned Manga artist, a coyote, and Edward Gorey walked into a bar. They have been charged with finding a writer for a particular book. They took a table and had a few drinks. A few had more than a few.

“But Knopf said they wanted it to haunt and menace,” pleaded Bloch.       

“No, Robert,” de Beauvoir rolled her eyes. “You can forget about shower scenes. It takes place in a library, pour l'amour de Dieu. Sort of a library, anyway.”

“This is supposed to be a book for kids, Robert. Kind of. Although where the dire existentialism is going to fit in is anyone’s guess,” said Franz Kafka, or would have had he been there. At the moment, he was in Czechoslovakia managing the asbestos factory.

“It certainly makes sense to douse the story with terror, like any fairytale worth its salt,” agreed Perrault and the Grimms (the grim Grimms, not the bowdlerized versions).

The ghosts couldn’t speak, but they nodded in agreement with what passed for their heads.

“Yes, fear. Fear is key,” piped in Mrs. Stoat the schoolteacher, predictably.

Feynman liked the aspects of randomness and chaos.

A rabbit hole – where anything can happen – appealed to the spelunker;  borderlands – where everything else can happen – appealed to the coyote.

Pan thought it would be crackerjack if there was a guy dressed as a sheep.

Freud wanted dreams. Enough said.

“And art”, said Gorey, Munch, Escher, and the manga woman in unison. “Creepy, spidery, but some Pop, too. And some of those high-velocity cartoons. It’s a kid’s book ... like”

“Don’t forget music, though not Pop-cartoon bouncy.” That from Sibelius, never one for the light of heart.

“Okay, then. Pretty obvious. Get Haruki on the phone.”

 “Hey, it’s flowing like molasses around here. Where’s the barkeep?” demanded Poe.

Welcome, hopefully once again, to Murakamiland: sheep men, waifs, quests, attentiveness to little (odd) things, a labyrinth, a stairway down (“Long enough, it seemed, to reach Brazil,” notes the young protagonist, which may not be good – no offense to Brazil), absurdity and irrationality, the tension between the fantastical and the everyday, real and unreal, sadness and loss, then sudden shifts out of the blue, and plenty of the plain runic.   

The Strange Library is a kid’s book, no matter how many allegories, semiotics, characteries, parables, and paradiddles you drape on its shoulders. Ninety-six pages don’t make it a kid’s book, necessarily, even with the full-page, color artwork. It’s a kid’s book that happens to plumb the kind of questions that leave us all wishing for more room to breathe: the singular and ever-solitary individual – “The sheep man has his world. I have mine. And you have yours.... [E]ach treads his own path,” – the loss of identity (for better or worse), groping in the dark, self-understanding in an unknowable world, the dignity of idiosyncrasies.

The narrator, an adolescent boy, drops into his neighborhood library to return some books. He is a frequenter of the library, so he notices when the woman at the front desk is unfamiliar. And rude. When he asks to check out some books, she directs down some stairs to Room 107. This is all new to the boy, but down he goes. Finding Room 107, he knocks (“a normal, everyday knock, yet is sounded as if someone had whacked the gates of hell with a baseball bat”, enters, and finds an old man behind a desk. At first the old man is solicitous, but he gradually grows more ominous, as does the atmosphere. The boys requests three fat tomes on Ottoman tax collecting, which the old man retrieves from the stacks, but forbids the boy to check out. “Those books have to be read here.” In a yet more inner room, to boot.

Criminy, thought the boy. His mother will have a fit if he is late. He agrees to the now frankly menacing old man that he will stay and read for thirty minutes. He is led down corridor after forking corridor, through doors into yet more forking corridors, some “as dark as if a hole had been pierced in the cosmos,” until they reach the reading room. It’s a jail cell. The old man has no intention of the boy leaving until he has memorized the three books, he says. The boy’s jailer is a sheep man and a kindly old soul, whom the mean old man whips mercilessly with a switch. The sheep man has some good news and some bad news. Bad news first: when the boy finishes reading, “The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.” (Brains full of information are “nice and creamy.” The good news: the sheep man makes top-notch donuts, and as the initiated know, good donuts are cure-alls.

Another visitor to the boy is a beautiful girl – “so pretty that looking at her made my eyes ache” – who brings him his meals (and what meals: sea urchin soup, white asparagus with sesame-seed dressing, Toulouse sausage, stuffed snapper). She speaks with her hands, comfortingly and wisely. She appears unexpectedly, sometimes in different guises, and she conspires with the sheep man and the boy to escape.

No spoiler alerts, other than to mention a few of Murakami’s outlandish incidentals and observations: a vicious dog with a giant sparrow in its mouth; “Like a blind dolphin, the night of the new moon silently drew near”; that the boy had facility with classical Turkish though never having made its acquaintance; the old man sneering, “I can read the two of you as easily as I can a watermelon patch in broad daylight”; the suggestion it all may be a dream. (Murakami has said in an interview that he doesn’t remember his dreams, except one about a bowl of rice speckled with tiny pandas. Sigmund, we need you.)

And there are familiar, deep-running Murakami concerns and tactics. That of identity: “As I flipped the pages, I became the Turkish tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir....The air was filled with the scent of fruit and chickens, tobacco and coffee.” He also has three wives, six children, a scimitar, and a parakeet. Boundaries: a charged landscape, the threshold of mystery, where the avant-garde meets the primitive. The spirit and tone of the writing: As if Murakami is driving down a strange road, not know what’s to come around the next curve: alert, aware, but as in the dark as the reader. He is, however, a really good driver.

 Lastly, a floating, seemingly extempore Coda: “My mother died last Tuesday.” Camus wasn’t in the bar that day. He had to smoke outside. Pity.

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