I was afraid
I’d eat your brains
Cause I’m evil
“Conversation 16,″ The National
The foundations of my own quest to be a poet and fiction writer were laid while reading and hoping to be e.e. cummings and J.D. Salinger (hence, P.L. Thomas). Both share an idealizing of childhood and innocence against a skeptical, if not jaded and cynical view of adulthood.
Salinger’s short fiction also spoke to my early faith in craft; his stories are like diamonds so perfectly and carefully cut that one is both unable to look at or away from them.
Also—and quite logically in hindsight—I became fascinated with Franz Kafka, who posed a problem for my obsession with writer’s craft since his work was in translation and there was something unnamable in his stories and diaries/letters that moved me unlike cummings or Salinger.
More or less thirty years later, I am a much different writer as well as a much different reader. Part of my more recent journey has been the work of Haruki Murakami, who now bookends my Kafka phase with his magical nightmares that seem to defy much that I know about writing and reading (notably any clear concepts of genre).
The Murakami bounty in the last year-plus has been magnificent: “Samsa in Love,” “Scheherazade,” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Matthew Carl Strecher’s critical work, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.
But the work that has lingered for me is his The Strange Library because it captures nearly everything both marvelous and difficult about Murakami.
Many years ago I read The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel and have always thought the title was perfect. It is the Kafkan in Murakami—and notably in The Strange Library—that pushes me to magical nightmare for Murakami.
As a book lover and library advocate, I first noticed The Strange Library is a physical argument for the power of hard-copy books (not ebooks). The clever flap opening, the stunning illustrations, the heft of the cover and paper, the neoclassic typewriter font, the occasional blue type, the ink smell, the odd and final tiny-print paragraph—all of these publishing craft elements shout out for the enduring beauty of buying and holding a real-life, printed book.
Having recently presented at NCTE’s national convention on the importance of libraries—highlighting Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Louise DeSalvo—I was even more eager to read Murakami’s story since he has included libraries before (see Kafka on the Shore).
While DeSalvo’s memoir, Vertigo, opens with the library as sanctuary, The Strange Library is immediately ominous: “The library was even more hushed than usual,” it begins with the main character’s shoes making a “hard, dry sound…unlike my normal footsteps.”
Although the nameless boy frequents this library, the librarian is unfamiliar, and this experience reveals the library to be a labyrinth and a magical nightmare leading to the boy imprisonment and horrifying fate:
The sheep man cocked his head to one side. “Wow, that’s a tough one.”
“Please, tell me. My mother is waiting for me back home.”
“Okay, kid. Then I’ll give it to you straight. The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brain’ll get slurped right up.”
I was too shocked for words.
“You mean,” I said, when I had recovered, “you mean that old man’s going to eat my brains?”
“Yes, I’m really sorry, but that’s the way it has to be,” the sheep man said, reluctantly.
The story is brief, but layered in the way that makes Murakami, Murakami: places and people are not simple dualities, but simultaneously opposing forces, to the point of being irreconcilable.
The Strange Library leaves a great deal unsaid in the wake of nearly too many aesthetic messages, a magical nightmare of childhood that almost reminds me of Neil Gaiman (almost).
The melancholy loneliness that clings to everything Murakami—”After that, I never visited the city library again”—remains once you carefully interlock the flip opening, much as those giant cartoon eyes seem to demand.
However, my heart is warmed because this book demands to be read and re-read, held solidly in your hands that remain somewhat unsure what to do with this odd little book.
For Further Reading