Who sets the limit between real and fantastic? Is there any? Haruki Murakami plays again with imagination in his novella, The Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library

Published 2014 by Harvill Secker (first published 2005), 88p

 

Ever since I was little my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.

 

I still remember my excitement when I discovered Haruki Murakami and the pleasure of his texts. The first book on the list was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and I still think this is his best novel, the complete synthesis of his universe. I admire his creative force, the unusual that he so easily introduces, the simplicity of the style and his taste in music.

the library

The Strange Library proves once again that reality is subjective. We define reality through our own experiences and perception.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footstep. Every time I get new shoes, it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A nameless boy goes to the library to return two books and to find some new ones on how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire. There is nothing unfamiliar or about to predict something unusual. But soon the boy is directed to the Reading Room in the basement where he is locked by an old man and asked to read the books before his brain is being eaten.

Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time… this kind of thing’s going on in libraries everywhere, you know. More or less, that is. … If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?

The boy keeps thinking of his worried mother and his unfed starling. Then he finds comfort in the kindness of a small sheep man that bakes appetizing doughnuts and a beautiful girl speaking only with her hands and whose real existence is uncertain.

First, the boy decides that the best thing he could do is respect orders and read the books:

I became the Turkish tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir, who walked the streets of Istanbul with a scimitar at his waist, collecting taxes. The air was filled with the scent of fruit and chickens, tobacco and coffee; it hung heavily over the city, like a stagnant river.

Then he dreams of his freedom and plans his escape.

The descending in the basement seems to be a symbolical exploration of the subconscious, a demonstration of how smoothly reality can slip into fantastic. The curiosity for stories changes reality and the need to comprehend things becomes an impulse for imagination.

The book can also be read beginning with one of the last last paragraphs. A boy remains alone so he can find comfort only in stories:

I do occasionally think about the new leather shoes I left behind in the basement, though. That leads me to memories of the sheep man and the beautiful voiceless girl. Did they really exist? How much of what I remember really happened? To be honest, I can’t be certain. All I know for sure is that I lost my shoes and my pet starling.

My mother died last Tuesday. She had been suffering from a mysterious illness, and that morning she quietly slipped away. There was a simple funeral, and now I am totally alone.

The illustrations assist the suspense and oddity of the story, creating a gloomy, funereal atmosphere but leaving space for dreams. And hope.

Complement The Strange Library with a poetic collection of stories on the fragility of our memory.

 

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