- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

THE STRANGE LIBRARY
By Haruki Murakami Translated by Ted Goossen
Alfred A. Knopf, $18, 96 pages

Most of the time books are commodities: familiar objects that we pretty much ignore as we open them and focus on their text rather than their physical characteristics. Occasionally, though, books demand attention for themselves. Coffee-table books, radiant with pictures, are examples. Similarly, illustrated museum catalogs, facsimiles of old books or specially bound collectors’ editions wave their hands so that we notice them rather than speed straight to printed pages.

“The Strange Library” is not a coffee-table book or a catalog or a facsimile, though its oddities may eventually make it a collectors’ edition. It’s small and thin with two large comic-book eyes staring out of its red cover. Don’t think of getting to the story by the usual means of lifting this cover and moving it to the left. You must raise it from the bottom to the top, and then you will see a flap darkly illustrated with the bared teeth of a snarling dog. The pages are not printed in a regular book font but in typewritten style, and most come partnered with a picture, some of them seemingly only tangentially related to the text.

In short, this book is disconcerting.

Its story is disconcerting too. A boy returns his books to the public library. From the get-go, things are odd. His new shoes clack annoyingly. The librarian is unfamiliar and is reading an unusually large book. To get the books the boy wants, the librarian sends him to Room 107, which turns out to be in a basement he had not known about. There he tells another librarian — a little old man — that he wants books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. The old man brings the books and forces the boy to read them inside a special room in the library. Once in the room, the boy is imprisoned and told to memorize the three books. Then he is informed that when he has done so, “The top of your head will be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.” The point of memorizing the Ottoman Empire books is that “Brains packed with knowledge are yummy. They’re nice and creamy and sort of grainy at the same time.”

Readers will quickly recognize the elements of one of the grimmer of Grimms’ fairy tales. They also will note that stories that take place in a basement are likely plumbing psychological depths. Indeed its Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, has said that to write “you have to go down to the basement of the mind.” What he typically comes up with are narratives that are journeys of self-discovery, usually featuring young men and often an alluring and knowledgeable female. Some, like his recently published “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” are realistic novels; other stories are more mysterious, sometimes nightmarish and swirling with fantasy.

“The Strange Library” falls into the latter category, though like “Colorless Tazuru Taziki” it has a questing central character aided by a beautiful and inspiring woman. Like Tsukuru Tazaki, the unnamed narrator behaves in ways that are conventionally correct. Indeed, he is concerned all the time with following the rules his mother has established, and especially with not worrying her by being late or by spoiling his new shoes. When things go suddenly wrong, he is at a complete loss just as Tsukuru is when his group of close friends shun him without revealing the reasons.

When “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” was published in Japan, it became the fastest-selling book ever on Amazon. Within the first week of publication, it was reprinted eight times. These huge sales can be credited to Haruki Murakami’s following of loyal readers. He has published over 50 volumes, among them novels, short story collections and translations of American authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger. Several of his works have been made into films in Japan, and he has won numerous literary prizes. He has the distinction of being both a cult novelist who appeals especially to the young, and also a writer eyed by critics as a potential Nobel winner.

Those who come to Mr. Murakami’s work for the first time will be elated by the clarity and wit of his style as translated by Ted Goossen, and intrigued by his characters and the situations they face. “The Strange Library,” a novella rather than a novel, stays in the mind because of its combination of brutality with flippancy, but mostly for its oddness. It is not in any usual sense a fun book, yet surprisingly in its own odd way it is a fun read.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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