'The Strange Library' Is Classic, Opaque Murakami

by Jon Morris

17 December 2014

Whimsical and frustrating, Murakami's latest may alienate some readers, but fans will want to add this oddity to their collection.
 
cover art

The Strange Novel

Haruki Murakami

(Alfred A. Knopf)
US: Dec 2014

For better or for worse, I rarely bother reading the publisher’s introduction that sometimes accompanies a review copy of a book. I like to come to terms with a book’s themes and techniques on my own, without someone else pointing the way. Besides, in the case of Haruki Murakami, I hardly felt like I needed an introduction.

Like many, I first fell in love with Murakami’s work when reading novels such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I can remember embarrassing myself more than once laughing out loud while reading A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance in the coffee shop of my local bookstore. True, Kafka on the Shore seemed to lack affect, and when IQ84 started to feel more like a test of endurance than a literary sojourn, I put it down.

I picked up Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage with some uncertainty after having read a review here at PopMatters. Yet, in that novel I found a beautiful tale that was mysterious and moving, if not quite as surreal or witty as Murakami’s earlier endeavors.

Murakami’s latest, The Strange Library, suggests a return to those earlier works: “a lonely boy, a mysterious girl, and a tormented sheep man” seek to escape from an enormous and bizarre labyrinth in the bowels of “the strange library”. The publisher lists the work as a novel, but at a mere 96 pages (many of which are illustrations) printed in large font, E.M.Forster would disagree.

The book is at once fun and frustrating: the fold-over cover panels are peculiar, and the illustrations colorful, but the story itself is enigmatic almost to the point of being opaque. The overall effect leaves you scratching your head and wondering whether some publicity material might have been helpful, after all.

Anyone who has read books by Shaun Tan, for example, knows how integral the images are to the stories themselves. Indeed, Tan’s The Arrival tells a complex and moving tale about immigration without words, one that managed to move my wife, herself an immigrant, to tears. In The Strange Library, however, while the images are perhaps complementary, at no time do they feel necessary, and they certainly will not move you. They are more of a curiosity than anything else: a black shoe; a doughnut; a maze. Sure, these objects appear in the story, but why we need what looks like a silk screen newsprint of them is unclear.

Edgar Allan Poe, an author who came to mind at times when I was reading The Strange Library, says that a short story is one that can be read in a single sitting, and most readers will manage to finish this book accordingly. Yet, like Poe’s own stories, many shorts also demand to be reread, and this is the case with Murakami’s tale, as well. 

At the end of the fanciful journey that takes the young narrator from his holding cell in the library to the open air outside of it, he ruminates on his experience: “Did the [the mysterious girl and the Sheep Man] really exist? How much of what I remember really happened? To be honest, I can’t be certain.”

I will be honest, too: the first time I read those lines, they irritated the hell out of me.

The Bulgarian literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls this sort of it-was-probably-all-a-dream story “uncanny”, as opposed to fantastic, because the bizarre is explained away psychologically as a dream or hallucination. I felt cheated. Then, I turned to what turned out to be the actual last page. Centered on the page is a two-inch paragraph in small black font that is in sharp contrast to the rest of the text; the color seems to have drained from the page, leaving it a sterile white. Less bold, the words themselves seem to lack confidence in the same way that the young narrator does.

Can a font be heart-breaking? I didn’t think so, until now.

I immediately turned back to the beginning and started again, this time with the suspicion that everything I had just read was an elaborate example of what Freudian psychoanalysis calls “projection”, a defense mechanism by which we project our own fears, anxieties and desires onto others. I began to wonder whether the narrator’s mother was worried about him, or whether he was projecting his own gnawing concerns onto his mother?

Instead of answers, the reader is left with questions.

In literature, the labyrinth is always a metaphor, but in The Strange Library could it be the space of some sort of psychogenic fugue?

And what about the ubiquitous black dog? The narrator tells us that “my mind got scrambled when that big black dog bit me”, but maybe the dog has less to do with trauma than with disease, which subtly haunts this book. For example, we are told in passing that the old man who terrorizes the characters “gave a rumbling cough and spat out a gob of something into a tissue.”

Even the description of the stunningly beautiful “girl-who-was-a-starling” is troubling: “Her neck, wrists, and ankles were so slender they seemed as if they might break under the slightest pressure.”

Then, there is the leitmotif of stolen time. Speaking again of the girl, the narrator tells us that “she seemed exhausted. She had lost her color and had grown transparent, so that I could see the wall behind her.”

“It’s because of the new moon,” she says. “It robs us of so much.”

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes discovers his mother not in pictures of her as an adult, but in a photograph taken of her when she was a child. Does the narrator of The Strange Library find his mother in the ghostly girl?

Ironically, the best advice the boy gets during his imprisonment in the library comes from the villain. “The world follows its own course,” he says, suggesting the futility of worry and anxiety. “Each treads his own path. So it is with your mother, and so it is with your starling. As it is with everyone. The world follows its own course.”

More than anything, I found myself free-associating while reading The Strange Library: Kafka, Dalí, Nabokov, and Poe all came to mind. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness. An “open work”, Umberto Eco tells us, resists any specific interpretation; it resists closure. Because this is an open work, academics are sure to love it; general readers, however, may lack the patience required to grapple with what could be either hermeneutic clues or loose ends. 

The Strange Library is not an equivocal success, but rather an interesting experiment, and Ted Goossen’s translation is generally fluid and unmarred by strange syntax or constructions. However, for reasons unclear to me, the overall tone is somehow less hiply colloquial than in translations by Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel. Collectors and hardcore Murakami fans will want to add this to their collection, but the uninitiated will surely want to start elsewhere.

Splash Image: press shot of The Strange Library sleeve art.

The Strange Novel

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