To begin: a short review for a short book. The challenge I realised as I considered Murakami’s The Strange Library was how to review the novella without giving everything away and without writing a long essay about Murakami. This is not to say that Murakami does not deserve a long essay: far from it. But this is a book review.
Those of you already familiar with Murakami probably think of him as a fantasist, a surrealist, so you will not be overly surprised by what happens to the narrator when he goes to the library to borrow a book on tax collection in the Ottoman empire: no doubt a riveting subject for historians, economists, tax gathers and their ilk but perhaps a surprising subject for a child concerned about his squeaking new shoes.
Nevertheless, it is a passing interest in Ottoman tax collection that takes the narrator and reader into the library and into a bizarre, often grotesque adventure. The Strange Library isn’t particularly pleasant reading. The narrator finds himself trapped in a horrific situation contemplating a disgusting fate.
However, it is extremely engaging reading as the reader enjoys(?) Murakami’s allusive and metaphorical prose. Richard Powers’ comments in “The Global Distributed Self-Mirroring Subterranean Neurological Soul-Sharing Picture Show” his keynote speech given in Tokyo in 2006 at A Wild Haruki Chase: How The World is Reading and Translating Murakami are particularly apt in relation to The Strange Library: “One of the great pleasures in reading Murakami lies in imagining just what links might unfold between . . .two worlds of banal realism and underground phatasmagoria.” True indeed.
This work will interest you if you want to think about Jung, about Borges, about Bishop Berkeley, about neural chemistry, about the nature of creation and about the nature of perception, and about the power and dangers of acquiring and relying upon knowledge. If you enjoy Lewis Carroll at his most bizarre, then you will appreciate The Strange Library. Indeed, I couldn’t help but compare Murakami’s narrator with Carroll’s Alice, but Alice ultimately returns to an apparently secure normality of family, sisters, and kittens. The narrator of The Strange Library finds himself “totally alone” with “No mother. No pet starling. No Sheep man. No Girl” (72-73). Murakami’s view of existence is ultimately far more stark than Carroll’s, so stark that fantasy is the only way to contain its misery, and dark humour the only tenable response.