Sunday, 11 January 2015

Haruki Murakami- The Strange Library

The Strange Library
Penguin Random House

Haruki Murakami
2008 (Japan)/ 2014 (English)

Translated by Ted Goossen

"Mr. Sheep Man," I asked, "why would that old man want to eat my brains?"
"Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that's why.They're nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time."

It came as a nice surprise to fans of Haruki Murakami when Harper Penguin imprint Harvill Sacker revealed that they would fill the post-Colourless Tsukuru Tsukuru depression caused by a Murakami void just in time for Christmas, with a new illustrated edition of short story The Strange Library. On the surface, this 77-page compact hardback admittedly doesn't look like much at first glance, designed as it is to replicate a generic library book, with an academic maroon cover and a replica old school ticket template fixed to the front. As an aside, the size and colour closely resemble that of Paul Auster's similarly-illustrated short story Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, so much that I had to check that they didn't have the same publisher. Upon opening the book, the first thing that jumps out is the immaculate artistic design; the illustrations were mostly taken from unspecified old books found in The London Library, and the sadly-uncredited graphic designers at Harvill Sacker have re-appropriated them into an immersive backdrop for Murakami's story. 

The Strange Library tells the story of a boy who one day innocently visits the library for research, and is shown by an old clerk through an impossible basement labyrinth into a single room with the books he needs, and a strange figure known only as the sheep man (whom Murakami fans will recognise from his appearances in early novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance). The old man tells the boy if he will return in a month. If the boy has memorised the contents of the books, he may leave. The Sheep Man tells the boy the truth; the old man wants him to learn because it will make his brain taste better when he eats it. The boy must rely on the help of the sheep man and the ghostly spirit of a beautiful girl who talks with her hands, if he ever hopes to escape. Haruki Murakami at his most fantastically surreal.

The art and text flow within each other, entwined so neatly that the evocative Victorian Gothic feel to the varied images seeps into the story, combining wonderfully with Murakami's deceptively-plain narration. It has the same power as a dark fairytale, flowing with the same ethereal dream quality of a Neil Gaiman story (it felt like it could've been an issue of The Sandman), given more power through the help of the design and pictures. It's one of the most memorable of all of Murakami short stories (though not my favourite, that will always be Superfrog Saves Tokyo), a creepy little tale that also distintly reminded me of Benecio Del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth in its heavy use of magical realism. I'm struggling to find any reason to be critical of it really, the only thing that might bug someone is that it's quite expensive for a short story- but even then the craft in the art and designwork makes it much more than that. I wouldn't ever want to encourage Murakami (or any author I like) to make a habit of releasing full-price short stories, but if they're as engaging as this then it'll be easy to forgive.