The (very) strange library

Where do graphic novels end and "real" books begin? I have a bit of an awkward relationship with graphic novels. The very few I've read have been more child related (see, for example, Tintin and the Calculus Affair), and those I've enjoyed; but despite having grown up with comic strips and loving them as a child, I've never got into graphic novels as an adult. I was thinking about this when I was reading Haruki Murakami's The strange library (Fushigi na toshokan), which although to all intents is an "ordinary" novel, is heavily dependent on illustrations that feed strongly into the narrative (indeed, parts of the story wouldn't work without them). So, The strange library spans both the graphic and textual worlds.

Murakami is an unusual writer, you really won't read anyone else quite like him. Even by Murakami's standards The strange library is a very odd read, and yet it manages to be innovative and captivating despite its oddities.

At under 100 pages long (and many of those full page illustrations), this is more novella than novel, but the mix of pictures and text, and the dreamlike quality of the narrative makes it feel longer (in the nicest possible way).

As with many of Murakami's books the plot hinges on unexpected events in the most day-to-day situations. A young man goes to a library to borrow some books on Ottoman taxation, a passing thought (thank goodness he didn't bother to Google or the novella would never have got off the ground!) leads to his arrival in the library, where he is introduced to the librarian; who incarcerates him in a room deep underground with the exhortation to "Read". The librarian feeds on the brains of eager readers, so the protagonist is forced to choose between reading (or dying of boredom) or reading and risking having his brains sucked out at a future date. With just a girl who can only speak with her hands, and a man dressed as a sheep for company, how can the hero escape and return to his beloved mother?

I discovered when starting to review The strange library that there are three distinct versions of the book - the Japanese original, and an English translation by Ted Goossen. The British and American editions however vary with differences in illustrations between the UK and US versions - I'll be reviewing the UK version here. This is most clear on the cover, which in the UK looks like an old library stamping sheet (with the reader's card removed). A good dose of nostalgia meant that I couldn't overlook a book that reminded me of happy days in childhood libraries...

"A good dose of nostalgia"
The novel has an old-fashioned feel using old illustrations in new and sometimes confusing settings. But Murakami is constantly playing with his readers - yes, to a certain extent some of this has been done before (think W.G. Sebald ), but Murakami is very clever at combining the new and strange, with the old and comfortable.

It's an, at times, uncomfortable read, and what the reader gets out of it will probably be different for every reader. Is it about the power of books? The power of imagination (as readers we imagine the hero, and imagine the hero imagining how his (fictional) mother is responding to his loss, we also imagine, along with the fictional hero, the life of the (possibly-not-fictional) Turkish tax collector; so the imaginary is re-imagined by every reader, but also, at a certain level, the real becomes imaginary too. Is The strange library about the power of the mind, or the power of literature; or is it about something much more basic - perhaps it's about depression or alienation or even something completely different?

Murakami can sometimes be pretty incomprehensible, but he's always readable and thought provoking. Do visit The strange library, and hold on to your brain!

(There's another review with some striking illustrations from the novel on The Guardian's website)


Popular Posts