If I said, “Strange doesn’t begin to cover it,” I could probably just stop. This is easily one of the most bizarre things I’ve read in yonks, a nightmarish fairytale about a boy who just wants to read about tax collection in the Ottoman empire. Yes, it’s strange from the get-go.
The boy goes to his local library to return books about building a ship and… something else equally odd and not particularly interesting, and the librarian, who would rather read than deal with him, tells him if he wants more books he need to go to room 107 in the basement. There he finds an old man who rustles up not one but three books on Ottoman tax collecting, and then tells the boy they have to be read in the library.
The boy doesn’t want to stay. It’s late and his mother worries, but he’s a polite boy and agrees to read for 30 minutes. The librarian leads him through a maze to a cell where he’s told that if he’s memorized the three huge books in the course of a month, he’ll be set free. He’s put in the charge of a man in a sheep costume, fed well, and told that at the end of the month, the old man is going to eat his brains.
At this point I was pretty well committed to the story so I read on to find out whether the cannibal-librarian would have his meal, or whether the boy would get away, and who is the man dressed like a sheep and the girl who brings the boy food, but who everyone else says doesn’t exist?
And I still have no idea what actually happened. I mean, I know what the book says happened, but I don’t really understand it at a visceral level except as a fairytale that doesn’t seem to make any sense. To be fair, I find a lot of fairytales from outside the most familiar cultures make little sense to me, and this is more alien than I’m used to. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be clear on why.
Possibly it’s something to do with the illustrations which look like bits of Asian advertising art from the mid-20th century. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if Murakami began with these images and rearranged them until a story began to form in his mind. That would make as much sense as anything else.
The Strange Library is short, oblique, perturbing, scary, and funny. I found myself laughing over the most awful things, or muttering “What?” and “Oh come on!” but I finished it with a sense that I wanted to read more Murakami.