I know I came to Murakami late, but now I’m coming to know him I enjoy his work, a blend of literature, grunge, and SF bordering on (dreaded!) magic realism. Murakami’s first three works make up the Trilogy of the Rat. I reviewed the first two, Wind/Pinball (here) some time ago and gave teacher son the third, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) this Christmas, expecting him to have it finished on Boxing Day as usual. Inconsiderately, he took it with him to Morocco from whence he wrote –
I thought you despised magical realism. I liked most of it. The psychic girlfriend, and the historic davinci-code of a mystery, and the banality of everyday life- I expected him to stop by Nighthawks, or find a flatmate dead with a falafel on any given page. The symbolic sheep was exposed in a way that made it a genuine wonder. Not sure about meeting the Rat, though. I felt cheated when even the almost explicable mystical became brazenly magical.
Not all of this makes sense so, in the library for audiobooks this week, I thought to borrow a copy for myself but there wasn’t one and I borrowed The Strange Library (2005) instead. The Strange Library is a strange and beautiful book, seemingly a novella for children/YAs. I think I would read it to Mr 8 and Ms 7, my younger grandkids, and yet I enjoyed it well enough myself. It’s in that rarefied territory occupied by Lewis Carroll, The Magic Pudding and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and there are the most wonderful illustrations throughout taken “from old books in the London Library”.
The protagonist, a schoolboy, enters his local library and is ushered downstairs to a strange basement area he never knew existed nor thought the local council could afford.
A little old man asks him “the manner of books that he seeks” and the boy is flustered into answering ‘tax collection in the Ottoman Empire’ which has just popped into his head. The old man ducks through a heavy steel door and returns with three terribly old books, The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector and Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I might have to explain to the grandkids what an ottoman is (when it’s not being a couch).
The boy is fearful of being late home to his mother, who has been in a state of nerves since he was attacked by a big black dog with green eyes and a jewel-encrusted collar, and anyway she may, she will forget to feed his pet starling, but the old man is insistent the books must be read on site and straight away.
Are you planning to read this for yourself, then Spoiler Alert. The boy is led away through a maze of corridors, to a prison cell. A warder clad only in a sheepskin attaches a ball and chain to his ankle and warns him that when he is finished reading the old man will remove the top of his head and eat his knowledge-rich brains.
Despite this, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector comes alive as he reads it.
The old man came to check on me that evening. He was delighted to find me lost in my book. Seeing how happy he was made me feel a little happier. No matter what the situation may be, I still take pleasure in witnessing the joy of others.
A pretty girl brings him meals. The sheep man bakes him doughnuts. In the darkness of the night of a new moon they escape together only to find their last exit barred by the old man. And the big black hound.
The starling, or it might be the girl, comes to their rescue. The boy goes home where his mother seems not to have noticed that he has been gone.
To be honest, I was worried before writing this review that I might have missed the point, so I have since been making my way through the reviews I could find on the net. This from the Independent:
It is an odd and beautiful thing – a thing more than a book, whose design doesn’t just adorn but penetrates the story, melting into it with its dainty, surreal and haunting images that almost, at times, seem to finish Murakami’s sentences.
It had me enthralled, a pretty artefact that was a story of childhood, death and reading, drawn in both words and pictures, like a fairytale, yet there was nothing childish about it. (Arifa Akbar, 27 Nov. 2014. here)
So I guess I got it right.
Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library, Harville Secker, London, 2008. First pub. in Japanese, 2005. Translated by Ted Goossen.