Bite-sized Murakami
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2015 - 10:00am


Haruki Murakami

Available at

National Book Store

Following on the heels of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage last year, Haruki Murakami released The Strange Library, basically a short story packaged (in the US, anyway) with clever design by Chip Kidd, responsible for the look of most of the author’s American editions.

Focusing on a young boy returning some books to a local library, The Strange Library turns weird very fast, adopting an almost dreamlike, improvisatory pace. And you know what they say about dreams: describe one, and you lose a reader. Fortunately for Murakami, his dreams are fairly macabre and blunt, with the immediacy one might experience walking around in the ether of an REM state. I’ve often wondered how Murakami does this: so many of his novels slip into supernatural or surreal mode almost casually, as though the reader has just nodded off and another reality comes into play. The weird talking cat in Kafka by the Shore; the sudden appearance of two moons in 1Q84. Yet the tone of the books remain steady, constant; almost benumbed. It’s as though Murakami is the dreamer, and we’re simply sifting through his linear dreamscape.

In The Strange Library, the unnamed boy absently asks the librarian if they have any material on taxation during the Ottoman Empire. It’s not even a purposeful  request; it’s just something that popped into his head while walking to the library. The librarian tells him to go downstairs, to Room 107, and thus begins a sudden but brief journey into the peculiar terrain of Murakami’s mindscape. As has been noted often, it’s a view not unlike that of Laura Dern’s character in Blue Velvet, who described her dream of a world that is dark, condensed, almost imploding with evil energy. But from within, a tiny explosion of light emerges in the form of robins, bursting out to fill the universe. It’s the old Manichean dualism between good and evil, but filtered through modern psychology and surrealism.

Frustratingly, neither Lynch nor Murakami are willing to shed much light on their creative process. Lynch credits the process of transcendental meditation for his ideas, never citing a specific moment from his past; and even in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami’s short memoir, he totally avoids talking about imagination, saying that writing is simply a combination of “talent, focus, and endurance.”

Good poker players, these two.

Anyway, the boy meets an old man behind a desk who asks what he wants; to learn about taxation during the Ottoman Empire, the boy replies. The boy is led to another area of the basement, down a dark corridor, and thrown into a prison cell. That’s when things turn diabolical.

In all honesty, The Strange Library seems like the kind of brief story sketch Murakami could whip off in a café, or while waiting for a dentist’s appointment. It’s a bit too dark to be a children’s book, though tweeners might be drawn to its emo qualities. Kidd’s graphic design focuses on close-up, almost dot-matrix views of wallpaper, origami birds, sugar doughnuts and sheep. The design at first repels easy reading: the flaps opening above and below the cover get in the way more than anything else. But as an object, it’s beautiful, and the large-size text (set in Typewriter font) means you’ll finish it in about 20 minutes. It is, after all, a short story.

If one were to detect a template in Murakami’s work, it might involve a bemused narrator; a set of puzzles to unravel, often involving an old man; a deepening awareness of good and evil forces; and a girl somewhere off to the side, either too innocent or otherworldly to be a love interest, but helpful in most other ways. This pretty much fits the story of The Strange Library.

Has Murakami exhausted his imagination? As we know, he has become a kind of literary brand. His books now share a uniformity, not only in design but in literary shape, at least the ones that get shelved in local National Book Stores, and he’s obviously got a huge following. It took him a while to be translated into foreign languages, but his readership in Japan shows no signs of flagging. A post-war writer who speaks to each emerging generation of readers is a pretty rare thing.

Another thing: why so few movies based on his books? Murakami’s fictional worlds would seem like prime real estate for, say, the Wachowskis or Cronenberg, or even Lynch. Yet other than Norwegian Wood and Tony Takitani, his books remain unfilmed. Where’s P.T. Anderson’s four-hour Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, one wonders?

You can’t say that his stories don’t translate to Hollywood-fed audiences. They’re rife with sex, mystery, peril, horror, druggy alter-realities, and love. Maybe the author knows how few literary adaptations actually succeed. Maybe he is simply holding back.

And that’s what The Strange Library feels like. A companion piece, in a way, to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, but more of a warming-up exercise. A short sprint before the big race. We know that, when he starts focusing, Murakami will pen a whole new floating reality, something that won’t feel like the workmanlike scares of a Stephen King novel, but like the quietly disturbing insides of our own minds.



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