Book Review: The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami
Posted on December 28, 2014
*** Warning: this review contains a slew of spoilers ***
The Strange Library is sure to be engagingly familiar for most Murakami fans, regarding the set, the props, and the unlikely hero. There is a solitary, inward-looking boy; an ordinary public building containing a profound mystery; a hidden labyrinth; a sinister and grotesque man looming over the boy’s life in a threatening way; a sheep man (I have to admit to a soft spot for Murakami’s recurring sheep-man character — in this story, he even makes doughnuts; what’s not to love?); and an ethereal now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t beautiful female guide and protector, who doubles as the boy’s pet starling. It is beautifully written and reminds me of nothing so much as a Murakami version of a Grimm’s fairy tale — the original ones, not the sanitized.
A quick plot summary, for those who’ve not yet read it, but who’ve dived into this review despite the spoiler warning: a young boy stops by his local library on his way home from school, to return some books and check out others. He asks assistance from a librarian, who leads him down some stairs and a long hallway, to a room numbered 107. From there, the boy launches into an adventure in an underground labyrinth, from which he must find a way to escape, or else face a terrible death at the hands of the scary old man who has tricked him into the labyrinth. He must face all of his worst fears (some personal, some atavistic and universal) and accept help from his possibly-imaginary friends, to survive. The personal resources he has available to him are his intelligence and skill as a reader, which includes his capacity to be transported by books and his creative imagination.
If you’ve enjoyed The Rat Series: Wind/Pinball: Two Novels, A Wild Sheep Chase / Dance Dance Dance; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Kafka on the Shore; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and 1Q84 (especially), you will be happy to find elements of all of those here.
The Strange Library is an allegorical work, and I am still grappling with understanding the full meaning. I comfort myself with the fact that Murakami is typically reluctant to assign meaning to his writing, so I assume I am not alone in not always grasping what he’s trying to say. Besides the off-beat Murakami archetypes mentioned above, there is also a woman whom the boy wishes, beyond all wishes, to save from worry, fear, and injury: his mother. In this effort, he fails, and his other-worldly trek into a personal hell is understood, retrospectively, to represent his reluctant and painful journey through grief. (At least, that’s how I understood it, but I stand open to other interpretations.)
Frankly, I felt a bit cheated at the end, as if I had been following one story but then been led astray into another, just as the boy was tricked into the labyrinth. This little book starts off being funny (as in ha-ha funny, not just strange funny), but it does not end that way. The reader and the boy find their way through the labyrinth, with a little help from their friends, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel: only isolation and despair. Murakami drops us into the guts of the boy’s grief and utter abandonment and leaves us there. There is not even a beautiful girl-starling, or a friendly sheep man left to comfort us with doughnuts and kind words. Nevertheless, hard and bleak an ending as it is, it is an apt metaphor for eviscerating bereavement.
A lingering question: Why a library? My best guess is that the library represents at least two things to most readers, and so to the boy: a well-organised, safe, and quiet haven; and a place where one has unlimited access to vast stores of knowledge. It is where a certain type of person — readers and researchers — goes to find answers. Our protagonist, in fact, likes books about facts and personal histories that can teach him useful things about the world. When we meet him, he is returning How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd.
Librarians too represent knowledge and helpfulness. They are there to guide us through the stacks — their own kind of labyrinth — just as all adults we trust when we are children guide us through life. The boy in The Strange Library learns two things in quick succession, and they are not the lessons he’d hoped for: one is that librarians — and other adults, by implication — are not necessarily helpful or trustworthy; two is that there are some questions in life for which there are no good answers.
His mother’s importance in the boy’s life is clear from the beginning, as he repeatedly refers to the things she has taught him, about being prompt and polite, and considering others. But there is a limit to what mothers can teach their sons, and before the story ends, the boy will find that neither the library nor his mother’s loving guidance can save him from his fate. I believe that this is what it feels like when, as children, we have our first terrified moments of realising that our parents are as fallible, vulnerable, and fragile as we are.
Tori Amos once sang, “I almost ran over an angel, he had a nice big fat cigar. ‘In a sense,’ he said, ‘You’re alone here. So, if you jump, you’d best jump far”. In a sense, we are each alone here, but we don’t know that when we are children; not immediately, at least. In moments of devastating loss, we know it with pain as solid and crushing as a sledge hammer. Death is a monster that cannot be slain, grief eats us alive, and mothers can teach us everything except how to live without them.
(P.S. There are no Murakami cats — talking or silent — in this book, that I can recall. I know, this seems impossible to believe. You will have to see for yourself. Let me know if you find one.)