The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

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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”.

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

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18 thoughts on “The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

  1. I’m not overfond of Murakami, though I recognise that 1Q84 was probably not the best place to start.
    But I do want to say this: it’s great that your library is stocking translated fiction for its <18 readers. Apart from Heidi, I doubt if our children read much translated fiction, and yet it's a wonderful way to learn about the world.

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    • I’m not sure they recognised it as ‘childrens’, it was with all the other Murakamis. All council library books are bought by the state library, but I don’t have it with me to see if they attached any designation to it. Jules Verne would be translated though often what’s available is a bastardized cut down version. I wonder who else would be – Tin Tin?

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  2. I love Murakami too (but haven’t tried IQ84 and probably won’t). I haven’t heard of this one, perhaps because it is adult/child crossover. I’ve only read Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world of his bigger books, plus a couple of shorter novels, a short story collection, and his little “running” memoir. I have another smaller book on the TBR.

    Talking about which, in addition to those books you named, have you tried with your young-uns Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories. I loved reading it to mine.

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    • I had to look up the Rushdie before I replied – it looks wonderful. The next birthday is June 3 so that should do nicely. I’ve read 1Q84 a couple of times and will make my way thru all Murakami’ s work in the next couple of years I hope.

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      • I’ve reviewed this on my blog – one of the few Murakamis I’ve read since blogging. An enjoyable read providing some lovely insights, as I recollect. I like their sneaky memoirs that purport to be about one thing but provide so much more!

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      • Waves from near Gunning (transiting from Melb to Syd). I should have searched Murakami on your site when I was setting up my post. Will do so belatedly in a day or so.

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  3. I’ve had good and bad experiences with Murakami.

    I’m interested in this one, though.

    PS: I read the Magic Pudding and it was a difficult read: I had to google almost all the animals! 🙂

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  4. That ending in which his mother doesn’t realize he was gone reminds me of Where the Wild Things Are, a picture book by Maurice Sendak. It’s also a bit like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m not sure why there is a tradition of children disappearing and adults not noticing. Perhaps it’s meant to reflect that children don’t feel seen by adults? A lesson on how children feel replaceable (not by other children but by a life the parent could have lived without children)?

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      • I know I felt invisible when I was a kid. It was even worse that during summer vacation from school my parents continued to work and left us home unattended, and then they got home and plopped down in front of the TV until bed time. They started leaving us in the summer when I was around age 8 and my brother was 10. There was one neighbor out in the middle of nowhere, and she was a nut bar.

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      • I had my hassles with my parents but I had a very secure childhood. School teacher dad, full-time mum, spent most school holidays on mum’s parents’ farm. Books for kids often have invisible parents, but I never felt that way – and I’m sorry that was your experience – though I’d often disappear all day on my bike. I’ll have to ask my kids what their experience was.

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  5. Magic realism and I aren’t friends and I don’t have a great track record with Murakami – I won’t dwell on that! Instead, how lovely that you have a dialogue with your kids about books. I truly hope that when my kids are adults, I will have the same opportunity.

    Despite knowing that we shouldn’t press our own interests on our children, I have always nursed a hope that one of my kids (I have four) will love swimming laps – it’s a solitary thing but still nice to go to the pool with someone – and that they will enjoy reading. Alas, not the case at present (there’s years for my dreams to come to fruition!). My kids don’t mind swimming or reading but none are engrossed the way I was/am. I hold on to the hope that many adults I know, my brother included, became avid readers later in their life…

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    • I think Murakami is a surrealist rather than a magic realist, but that’s a fine point. My kids swam, although not since school, and we’ve always shared books and politics, which is a great joy.

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